Paris Air Show

Paris 2011: Aero Sekur airbags could soften helicopter crashes

 - June 20, 2011, 2:30 AM

Aero Sekur is continuing discussions with helicopter manufacturers here at the Paris Air Show in its search for a launch customer for its in-development, crash-landing protection system for helicopters, which it introduced last year at the Farnborough airshow.

The Italy-based company is exhibiting at two locations here at the air show, with one (Hall 1 Stand G293 in the Italian Pavilion) highlighting the work of its major research and manufacturing facility in Aprilia, south of Rome, and the other (Hall 2B Stand F156 in the UK Pavilion) focusing on the group’s developments outside aerospace and its global expansion, which includes offices in the UK, the U.S. and soon India (see box).

In fact, just before the Paris event, Mark Butler, Aero Sekur CEO, was marketing the company’s space-related products for the Indian manned spaceflight program. He told AIN from Bangalore that Aero Sekur also plans to set up two offices in India.

“We are the classic ‘M’ in ‘SME.’ You know: the small- and medium-size enterprise,” Butler said. “We have about 200 people and we’ll turn over this year slightly under than $50 million. We’re not huge, but we’re very diverse and we try to punch above our weight.”

The crash-landing protection system for helicopters, he explained, is the combination of two of Aero Sekur’s products. The first is emergency flotation equipment for helicopters, for which the company claims it is a world leader in technology and deliveries, and the second is a system for landing spacecraft on planets. The former, one of the company’s core products, is approved and in use on AgustaWestland A109 and A139 series helicopters. The latter, “an intelligent airbag system,” as Butler described it, is under development for the European Space Agency’s ExoMars program, and is set for a mission to the Red Planet in 2018.

The crash-landing system for helicopters uses airbags, an array of sensors and non-pyrotechnic values to control and cushion landings on water and land. With the aircraft in descent and right before contact, the airbags inflate in about two seconds and the sensors (accelerometers and attitude gages) determine the vertical and side velocities. The sensors can tell when the aircraft makes contact with water and keeps the valves closed to provide floatation for the stricken helicopter. If the airbags touch down on a hard surface, the sensors (now also using pressure gauges) determine its shape and slope. The sensors then adjust the sequence of the opening of the valves to deflate the airbags so that they absorb impact loads and bring the aircraft down to rest as level as possible.

“It’s like a big whoopee cushion divided into segments and with valves that open and vent very quickly,” Butler said.

The non-pyrotechnic valves are themselves an elegant Aero Sekur innovation in that they require fewer overhauls than conventional pyrotechnic values, can be quickly inspected and reset by an aircraft mechanic and have no definitive life limit. They also need only a small amount of electrical power for activation, Butler said.

The crash-landing system is designed to deploy during the last few seconds before impact. “We can make it as automatic as the customer wants. But we’ve found that with our floatation systems pilots usually can’t wait for the automatic system to kick in and use the manual override before the automatic system operates,” he said. Although the crash-landing system will not be certified to be deployed during normal flight, Aero Sekur will have to prove to authorities that the system could be inadvertently inflated at cruise speed without the helicopter becoming uncontrollable.

Aero Sekur has extensively simulated, modeled and tested the two elements of the crash-landing system, but testing of an actual on-aircraft combined system will be done as part of the development and qualification process with the not-yet-found lead customer. “In theory,” Butler said, “the system is scalable for any helicopter. In practice, the relative weight of the system could be a concern with smaller helicopters; with the really large ones, like a Chinook, it could be a matter of finding a way to mount the system in the right place.”

Regarding price, he roughly estimated that a crash-landing system on a medium helicopter, such as an AW139, could cost the customer about $120,000 to $150,000. He said there are no current plans for an aftermarket modification of the system and that the cost for development and STC approval would be determined on a case-by-case basis.