Airbus Helicopters Reins In Innovation

 - September 3, 2014, 4:35 AM
When the X4 was announced it was planned to be radically different from any other helicopter. Airbus has since changed course and will offer the helicopter with the Helionix suite, said CEO Guillaume Faury.

Is the honeymoon over for Airbus Helicopters and big innovation? Despite the news that the company will build a successor to the X3 compound demonstrator by 2019 (see AIN, August, page 57), Guillaume Faury (who was appointed CEO 16 months ago) seems to have a more cautious approach than his predecessor, Lutz Bertling, and some signs suggest the OEM will scale back its forays into brave new territory.

First, the X4, successor to the EC155/Dauphin, will be equipped with the Helionix suite rather than the radically new man-machine interface originally envisioned for it. “The X4 medium twin, to be unveiled next year at the Heli-Expo show, will share its avionics and autopilot with the EC175 and EC145T2,” Faury said in July. Bertling used to emphasize that flying the X4 would be markedly different from flying any other helicopter, with a lot more assistance for the pilot. In fact, in 2011 he said that someone sitting down in one of the front seats would miss something: the cockpit. The ergonomically innovative cockpit he envisioned, complete with touchscreens, other advanced displays and fly-by-wire controls, would have appeared in a second version of the X4.

The full extent of these plans is history now that Airbus is working on only one version of the X4 rather than the two variants that were to be made available in 2017 and 2020. The second version will simply benefit from regular avionics upgrades to its Helionix avionics suite. As for the fly-by-wire controls, a Sagem spokesman could not confirm whether his company is still developing them.

Faury declined to concede that the revised plans for the X4’s cockpit represent a downscaling of his company’s technology ambitions.

Electric Back-up Motor Project Stalled

But it has shelved another innovative project. The electric backup motor that was tested in 2011 on an AS350 Ecureuil single has not received the go-ahead for development. Faury said Airbus Helicopters has deemed the technology immature and it will not lead to a product in the short term. “We could not find the right tradeoff among weight, price and performance,” he said, primarily, AIN understands, because today’s batteries are too heavy.

As demonstrated three years ago, such a motor would have made autorotation a surer maneuver in the event of engine failure. The motor would not have served as a second engine, but for a few seconds after engine failure it would have maintained a constant rpm and it would have helped during the flare and touchdown. Airbus officials had indicated since 2011 that a launch of the system as a product was imminent.

Research and development spending increased sharply over the last five years. It reached €306 million ($416 million) last year, up from €200 million ($272 million) in 2010 but a modest expansion over 2012’s €297 million ($404 million). Faury took over from Bertling in May last year.