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Will We Ever See That Leap Ahead in Chopper Tech?

Here's a question we've been hearing for well over a year now, where's the serious innovation going to come from in the helicopter industry? Think about it almost all of the Pentagon's choppers, even the new buys like the Marines' CH-53K, are based on decades-old designs.

One problem, industry officials have long said, is that as government R&D funding for rotorcraft dries up, the talent needed to produce serious leaps ahead in technology will dwindle. This lack of cash and engineering resources means that we'll continue to see incremental increases in chopper tech but serious leaps ahead like we saw in previous decades have largely disappeared, save for the nearly three-decade long developmental saga of the V-22 Osprey.

Here's an excerpt from a piece I wrote last year at Defense News:

"Production funding [for old designs] is at an all-time high," while rotorcraft R&D funds are at an all-time low, said Phil Dunford, vice president of international rotorcraft systems at Boeing. "What's driving that is that over the last 10 or 15 years we've been in a war-fighting environment, and that's driven production rates up and R&D funding has dropped off to match."

The helicopter industry has simply refined and upgraded airframe designs that are up to 50 years old, meaning that in some cases, helicopters remain as vulnerable to small-arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and sand brownouts as they were during the Vietnam War, Dunford said.

This trend may now be coming to a slow end. The Pentagon recently unveiled plans to develop four new classes of chopper known as "joint multi-role" rotorcraft. They're supposed to be employed by all four services (like the H-60 Black Hawk design) and are supposed to share basic design characteristics in an effort to keep costs down. The birds will be in the light, medium, heavy and ultra- size categories and the Army just unveiled its requirements for a medium-size, optionally-manned aircraft under the aegis of the joint multi-role effort.

Calling them choppers is a bit of a misnomer since the Army wants an aircraft that can carry nine troops along with sensors and weapons and fly at 200 knots. That's a serious evolution in technology that, as Steve Trimble has pointed out, will require something along the lines of a V-22-like design. Or maybe, one of Sikorsky's new coaxial-rotor birds, like the X2 shown in the video above. Given that the Army wants its birds in service by 2030, this means industry has got to scramble. For now, my money is on Bell-Boeing and Sikorsky to produce designs that are at the front of the competition. Boeing's already got production and design experience building the 200+ knot V-22 and Sikorsky is planning on flying the Raider by mid-decade.

Still, we'll see what happens with this effort in an age of belt tightening and an eye toward buying weapons systems that are built off proven technology.

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