This article first appeared in AWIN First.
Eurocopter has begun proving trials of its EC145 twin-engined helicopter with an optionally piloted flight control system.
The self-funded demonstration program, revealed April 25, made its first flights in early April and has already carried underslung loads and performed what the company calls a "representative observation mission."
The Optionally Piloted Vehicle (OPV) flight capability was developed and coordinated by a team at the company's Donauworth, Germany, facility. Initial tests with a monitoring pilot aboard the EC145 were flown from Donauworth and then at the Istres test airfield near Marseille in the south of France. Early flights in the OPV configuration were conducted with a safety pilot. Later flights were flown without a pilot onboard.
The company says the EC145 demonstrator is a Eurocopter testbed, equipped with an enhanced, dual-duplex, four-axis automatic flight control system (AFCS) and navigation system. The aircraft is also fitted with a "plug-in" OPV avionics rack in its cabin behind the pilot seats, which contains the data link subsystems.
The aircraft uses four-dimensional flight plans which are uploaded into the flight control system. To deliver the external load, the helicopter simply enters a planned hover. Ground station operators can then maneuver the aircraft over the drop point before releasing the load. In case of emergency or system degradation, the aircraft also has an automatic hover-to-land capability.
The company says the OPV technology could find its way onto all the helicopters in its product line.
The use of the EC145 to test the technology is perhaps significant in itself; a variant of this aircraft, the ARH-72X+, is being offered to meet the needs of the U.S. Army's Armed Aerial Scout requirements. While OPV capability is not currently being demanded by Army officials, the Army is exploring its potential for other uses.
Sikorsky has a concept of giving UH-60 Black Hawks an OPV capability, which means several aircraft could be ferried over long distances using only a single crew. Different flight modes could assist in returning a damaged aircraft with an incapacitated crew back safely to a main operating base, the company has suggested. An OPV scout helicopter means an aircraft that could be flown into higher risk areas to complete its mission. It would also have greater endurance, carrying extra fuel equivalent to the weight of its crew for some critical missions.