Sikorsky Aircraft plans to invest $1 billion over the next 10 years in research and development to redefine the future of vertical flight, the Stratford, Conn.-based helicopter manufacturer announced earlier this month. Spearheading this endeavor will be Sikorsky Innovations, a business-focused technology-development corporation that is charged with finding solutions to difficult vertical-lift problems and providing customers with proposals that shorten execution timelines and reduce costs. The new company, which has been working quietly for two years as an internal organization called Technology and Innovation, arrived at its February 1 launch party at the Connecticut Science Center in Hartford ready to show off a few products it has already developed.
“We wanted to wait until we had some real results, such as our build of the X2 Technology Demonstrator and our Darpa [Defense Advance Research Projects Agency] projects for Sandblaster and hostile-fire detection,” said Chris Van Buiten, director of Sikorsky Innovations. “We also wanted to demonstrate that we’ve grown our network of partners, teammates and customers; we’re doing research in about 40 places around the nation. We think we have achieved a critical mass of technology accomplishment and network and it is now time to accelerate that growth so that we can take on more of these projects.”
The Sandblaster program is aimed at reducing the hazards of operations in brownout conditions, where the downwash from a helicopter kicks up so much dust or sand that the pilots lose all visual references with the ground. “Sandblaster integrates a 94-gig-Hertz radar with a Honeywell Sleek computer, which in real time adds the dynamic objects in the world to its digital-map representation of the world,” Van Buiten explained. “With it, helicopters could safely land in zero-zero conditions in an obstacle-rich environment.”
In its development of the hostile-fire system (HALTT-A), the Technology and Innovation group modified a system, that is used on some Humvees and detects the sonic boom of rounds in flight. “The system gives the pilots the direction and azimuth of incoming rounds so they can make the appropriate evasive maneuver,” Van Buiten said. Both systems flew last year. The Sandblaster is in development and aircraft are being modified right now with the hostile-fire detector before deploying to Afghanistan, he said.
“The purpose of Sikorsky Innovations,” Van Buiten told AIN, “is to create a network of capabilities within Sikorsky, which includes the United Technology Research Center and other UTC facilities, as well as with academic institutions, entrepreneurial businesses, partner companies and our customers. We do our best work when our objectives are aligned with our customers.”
The Sikorsky Innovations organization was influenced by the legendary Lockheed Skunk Works, said Buiten. “In fact, our vice president of research and engineering was a chief engineer in the Skunk Works. Our plan is to develop engineering-process technologies that will result in new rapid-prototyping tools, advanced manufacturing automation, virtual-reality simulation, high-performance computing and other development game-changers.”
Van Buiten has about 100 people working for him at the Sikorsky Innovations’ facility in Stratford, but as a “virtual organization our capabilities are distributed across the nation and not in one big room in Connecticut,” he said. The company has already started investing in small companies “with agile technology and interests aligned with ours.” Eagle Aviation Technologies of Hampton, Va., which made the rotor blades for the X2 demonstrator, is one recent example. Sikorsky owns a minority interest, but Eagle Aviation remains a standalone company.
“One billion dollars over ten years is obviously a significant investment in the rotorcraft world,” Van Buiten said, adding that the company is working on optionally piloted aircraft, high-speed flight and other programs. “At the launch event at the Connecticut Science Center, we told the audience, ‘If you are a vertical-flight person, and you don’t find this exciting, we’re going to bring in the EMTs and check your pulse, ‘cause something is really wrong.’”
Sikorsky’s ‘Avatar’ Aficionados Offer Advice for Sequel
As a let’s-have-fun company event early this year, Sikorsky Innovations rented an entire movie theater to take some 200 employees and families to watch James Cameron’s hugely successful film, “Avatar,” in 3D.
“We just had to go see it,” said Sikorsky Innovations director Chris Van Buiten. “It was great.”
So what did the Sikorsky Innovations engineers think of the helicopter with dual counter-rotating rotors and a pressurized cockpit?
“I guess you could call it a shrouded, lateral twin,” Van Buiten said. “It seemed fairly well suited to the mission they had, which was jungle operations. I really liked some of the pilot displays: the transitions from IFR to VFR and the head-up display that slid out of the way.
“We all sat there watching it and said, ‘We could do that.’ I think we could, actually, do pretty much what they were showing. But we were surprised they were still shooting bullets. We are now laying out vehicles with directed-energy weapons. So, I think our vision would have been a little more advanced.”