Sikorsky targets environmental impact of its rotorcraft designs

 - January 23, 2008, 9:26 AM

Asked to visualize an environmentally “green” helicopter, most of us would think of a rotorcraft that was quiet. Given some more thought, the idea of a helo whose engines developed minimal polluting emissions might spring to mind.

But when Sikorsky manager of safe and green helicopter programs Robert Araujo (pronounced aroo-joe) talks about green helicopters, he means a measure of the complete environmental cost of a given rotorcraft, from the raw materials for manufacture to the eventual recycling of those same materials.

“As we enter the fourth era of environmental awareness,” Araujo told a recent gathering of Sikorsky’s local chapter of the American Helicopter Society (AHS), “we find ourselves looking at more than just noise and emissions. We find ourselves asking questions about economics and ergonomics. We press for the increased use of green and safe materials in the manufacture and maintenance of our helicopters, developing better technologies along the way.”

As defined by Araujo, there have been four eras of environmental awareness and practice. The first era can trace its ancestry to a single day: April 22, 1970, aka Earth Day. “I planted a tree that day. Everyone planted a tree that day,” Araujo said. “That day marked the beginning, when so many environmental problems were identified and the very earliest action taken. It was back in the era in which rivers caught fire and the detection of living fish in one of the Great Lakes became headline news.

“The second era covered the 1980s, when landmark environmental disasters in Chernobyl and Bhopal, India, and the Love Canal and Times Beach calamities happened here in the U.S.,” Araujo continued. “The third era, roughly the 1990s, saw the advent of real corporate concern over eco-efficiency, when a corporation’s efforts toward environmental health and safety expanded, not just to cover its own facilities and workers but to include the world in which those products function. The debacles of the 1980s were the driving influences toward this new attitude.

“Today we’re in the fourth era, with a global perspective driving government actions and conferences, such as the Kyoto Summit, setting the agenda,” he said. “One of the offshoots of the new consciousness created by these conferences is a willingness to consider the problems in longer terms. At Sikorsky we’re looking at product lifecycles of some 50 years or more.”

One of the greener technologies developed in recent years at Sikorsky centers on the creation of an emissions-free paint. “There are no gases coming off that paint, so there’s no need for specially ventilated areas where the solvent gases have to be collected and disposed of as part of the total paint process.

“Our team did this work without any idea that what they were doing was unique. It wasn’t until they were done that we contacted United Technologies [Sikorsky’s parent] only to discover that not only had this type of coating never been done before, we had a two-year technological jump on everyone else.”

The goal, as Araujo describes it, is to be able to recover an ever-growing list of crucial materials used in helicopter manufacturing that Sikorsky, largely through Araujo’s research efforts, has determined will never again enter the environment. “There’s a growing list of things we have to be able to recover at the end of the helicopter’s lifecycle. There’s no chrome used anywhere in our helicopters, for instance. We don’t use it because it’s too dirty.”

But it isn’t just using nonpolluting paint and cleaning parts with biodegradable solvents, although that helps. To hear Araujo talk about it, thinking green begins at the design stage. By engineers creating components composed of fewer parts, assembly is easier and the parts train, the sheer volume of bits and pieces that have to follow a modern helicopter into service, is shortened. He pointed to a recent redesign of the UH-60 Black Hawk main rotor tip and tip cap.

“It’s real meat-and-potatoes engineering,” Araujo said. “And what the team did with it was remarkable, not only reducing the number of parts needed within that cap but also covering the cap’s surface with a single-piece, form-fitting decal. This sort of decal eliminates the need for chemical-laden paint, the time and manual labor to apply it and later to remove the old paint when that day comes.”

Using a comparison criteria grid worked out according to a proprietary system developed by Araujo’s office, Sikorsky reviewed its own basic UH-60 Black Hawk military transport design and graded it according to its overall “greenness.” Araujo’s team then applied the same criteria to a Sikorsky design created nearly 20 years later, the RAH-66 Comanche scout/attack rotorcraft. The difference is dramatic–the Comanche scores a 78 percent “green” rating, despite its heavy reliance on “milspec” technology. Evaluations of the other Sikorsky products are under way, with the current green thrust aimed at the manufacture of the S-92.

Asked by a member of the admittedly partisan audience of Sikorsky engineers and management to compare the “green” scores of their products to those of their competitors, Araujo awarded U.S. domestic rotorcrafters an overall B+ or A grade, with overseas makers scoring a B or C+. “Except for Eurocopter,” he added. “We have some real competition on this front from them.”