At a press conference yesterday morning, Sikorsky acknowledged the fifth anniversary of its Innovations research division, which was formed to tackle the most important issues facing the rotorcraft market, such as slow speed, poor maneuverability, vibration, noise and cost of maintenance. The group of about 100 engineers has access to the brainpower of the company’s 5,000 engineers worldwide. They work within the company’s three technology pillars of speed, autonomy and intelligence, and Chris Van Buiten, vice president of the division, gave the audience a window into the company’s recent developments in those areas.
Following successful flights of the X-2 technology demonstrator which set an unofficial world speed record for rotorcraft, the airframer is readying the S-97 Raider, the first production application of the technology for its first flight. “A basic rule of thumb is to launch a new airplane you better be 20- to 30-percent better than the existing aircraft in at least three dimensions,” said Van Buiten. “The Raider blows away the competition in traditional helicopter attributes in more than six dimensions.”
Though it has yet to fly, the company is already exploring additional avenues for the aircraft, including a private “Corporate Raider.” Already in detail design phase is the next step up, the SB-1 Defiant, a high speed, 30,000-pound-class transport developed in partnership with Boeing, which was selected for the Joint Multi Role-Technology Demonstrator competition. The Connecticut-based OEM is also partnering with Lockheed’s famed SkunkWorks on another high speed X-plane design.
In the autonomy realm, the gains in ever-shrinking and ever more powerful super computers have allowed the company to make great strides with its Matrix self-flying technology, and envisions a day in the near future where all of its products will be available in a pilot-optional configuration. Based on the simplicity of the Matrix system, Van Buiten noted anybody in the room, pilot or not, could fly a helicopter equipped with the system. As a further application, the company is currently retrofitting it into a retired U.S. Army UH-60A Blackhawk, which it envisions will eventually lead to fleets of such aged aircraft able to make pilotless military cargo runs in pilot-hazardous areas.
The company is also working to improve the intelligence of its products, developing self-monitoring systems, not only to indicate the health of the aircraft, but allow it to further assist pilots through the automation of certain tasks, such as designating flight modes based on economy, noise profile or speed. One such initiative nearing fruition is a hub-mounted active vibration control, which the company expects will impart its products with jet-smooth flight.