With the help of Emirati investors, the Kremlin hopes to capture a portion of the global market for luxury equipment through sales of VVIP aircraft and limousines under a common brand: “Aurus.”
In 2017, Abu-Dhabi-based Mubadala Investment Company, a sovereign wealth fund of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), teamed with the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) on a €300 million ($333 million) deal to acquire a 12.5 percent stake in Russian Helicopters.
A year later, another Emirati establishment, Tawazun Economic Council (TEC), came to an agreement with Moscow on an AED 460 million ($125 million) investment in the Russian Automotive brand “Aurus,” which specializes in luxury road vehicles.
Consequently, in February 2019, TEC’s newly launched Defense and Security Development Fund (DSDF) bought a 36 percent equity stake, enabling Aurus CEO Gerhard Hilgert to assert that the manufacturer now has a firm footing to promote its products in the Gulf region.
Earlier this fall, Russian Helicopters made an effort to bridge the otherwise separate projects by introducing the Ansat Aurus. This is an addition to the Ansat family of lightweight utility helicopters with a maximum takeoff weight up to 3,600 kg (7,937 pounds), and a useful load of 1,079 kg (2,380 pounds). Unveiled at the MAKS 2019 show in Moscow, an operable prototype showcased a passenger cabin configured for five travelers while a factory-standard utility version seats eight.
The exhibit featured a VVIP interior based on designs already implemented in the Aurus Senat limousine developed for President Putin in 2013-2018. (On a recent Gulf tour, the Russian leader rode in his armor-protected vehicle through the streets of Riyadh on October 14 and those of Abu-Dhabi the following day. Since its first public appearance at Putin’s inauguration in May 2018, the Senat series of automobiles has won several lucrative orders from heads of state and large corporations, loading the production line until late 2021.)
Current-production Ansats come with a pair of 630-hp PW207K engines supplied under a 10-year agreement with Pratt & Whitney Canada. The powerplant has been aboard since the type’s maiden flight in 1997, and entry-into-service with the Russian air force in 2012.
Even though Canadian engines remain available for factory-new Ansats, the Kremlin demanded that United Engine Corporation (local acronym ODK) develop a complete line of turboshafts to exclude foreign suppliers from the Russian Helicopters supply chain.
Hence, the manufacturer recently announced the development of the VK-650V with planned certification in 2023. The draft design will be completed later this year. Apart from a promised “significant reduction” in fuel burn, the refurbishment will decrease the share of Western components to a level permitting export to pariah states without asking permission from Washington.
Civilian Market Opportunities
According to a recent market forecast for civilian equipment, Russian Helicopters expects the total annual supply of turbine helicopters to the global marketplace to reach 860 by 2028. Of those, 22 percent will be twin-engine rotorcraft with a maximum takeoff weight between two and four tonnes—the category to which the Ansat belongs. The manufacturer wants to capture a good portion of this market.
Russian Helicopters’ long-term strategy calls for a steady increase in the share of civil products. In 2016, only 17 out of 189 helicopter deliveries were to commercial entities, but the company expects the global market for civil turbine-powered rotorcraft to grow at an average of 3- to 5 percent annually. “We did not pay enough attention to it before. Now, when the military sales decline, we are determined to win more civilian orders with the Ansat, the larger Ka-62 undergoing flight tests, and the smaller VRT500 now in development,” said Russian Helicopters general director Andrey Boginsky.
He expressed his hope that the final assembly line at the Kazan Helicopters plant will soon work to full capacity, at some 60 units per year. Following the civilian type certification in 2013, the type’s output rose. Meanwhile, there are more than 400 outdated Mi-2 helicopters still on the Russian register. Since the Ansat provides a direct replacement for the long-serving model, it has a considerable anchor market, the company believes.
The Kremlin helped the Ansat’s market entry by approving a “program for development of medical aviation” in 2016. It allocated about Rouble 10 billion ($156 million) for aviation items suitable for the purpose. The Ansat provides some expediency; at a maximum cruise speed of 260 km/h (140 knots), it can transport one bedridden patient needing intensive therapy and accompanied by two physicians over a radius of 200 kilometers (108 nm).
Last year, the manufacturer signed an agreement with the National Service of Medical Aviation (NSMA) for 104 Ansat and 46 Mi-8/17-series helicopters complete with medical modules. Under that deal, Russian Helicopters is to deliver 40 Ansats to NSMA in 2019, on top of 20 such rotorcraft to other local and foreign customers.
Before this deal, the manufacturer entered into an agreement with the State Transport Leasing Corporation (local acronym GTLK) with the latter acting as a vehicle to place Ansat products with commercial operators. Under the arrangement, the maker supplied six Ansats and 23 Mi-8/17s in 2017, and then 12 and 19 more, respectively, in 2018.
The medical version has also won foreign orders. The China Association of Emergency Medicine has signed for 20 rotorcraft, becoming a second customer for the type in China after Wuhan Rand Aviation Technology Service. These orders were placed on the understanding that the Chinese and Russian civil aviation authorities will soon enter into a “basic aviation safety agreement” (BASA), following several years of negotiations. Russian Helicopters foresees a considerable demand for the Ansat in the Chinese market, at some 70 units.
Since induction, the Ansat has been through several improvement programs, centering on extending service lifetime and maintenance intervals, reducing weight, and boosting performance. Numerous technical improvements introduced in the past three years have made the Ansat more reliable, with average utilization now exceeding 600 hours per year.
“This platform is such that can be improved endlessly,” Boginsky commented. “We have replaced the old glass with that withstanding bird strikes, and introduced a crash-resistant fuel system.”
Special attention has also been paid to perfecting the force-bearing structure, a process managed by a special commission on weight. Whenever possible, metallic elements in skin, cowlings, and hatches have been replaced with those made of composite materials. “We have already reduced the empty weight by 100 kilos,” down to 2,500 kg (5,511 lb), Boginsky said.
Operators can get upgrades on their in-service machines, performed by the Helicopter Services Company. Additional layers of thermal insulation applied to the nose cone, beneath the windshield and around the glass in the forward doors enable lower ambient temperatures permitted for safe operations; down to -45 degrees Celsius.
Introduction of louvers into engine cowling and reworked heat exchange panels to the hydraulic reservoir enable increased ambient temperatures up to +50 degrees Celsius. A new pendulum assembly to the main rotor mast helps reduce vibration and noise suppression, along with a new active vibration control system (AVCS). Bolt-on sensors on the fuselage feed information to a central processing unit working out signals for actuators. A new fairing on the top of the rotor mast reduces drag.
Meantime, the factory-standard version achieved a new milestone on October 18 by successfully covering a distance of 1,600 km (863.5 nm) between Moscow and Adler in 9 hours 50 minutes, making five fuel stops. A couple of months before, the Russian civil aviation authority awarded the manufacturer a supplemental type certificate for the Ansat for an extension of the fuselage lifetime from 2,000 flying hours up to 16,000. According to Boginsky, the increase helped the maker win a contract from Polar Airlines on seven “vastly improved” Ansats, which are due for delivery in 2021. Three machines will come equipped with medical equipment, and the rest with provision for installing similar items on request. Apart from medevac duties, these will be able to transport passengers and will be used in search-and-rescue, fire-fighting, surveillance, and other duties.
All the helicopters for Polar Airlines will come in an “Arctic” version intended for work in the cold climate of Russia’s extreme northern territories. The customer specification calls for non-hangar storage, extended range, a suitable anti-icing system, and instrument flight rules (IFR) capability in the given theater of operations.
Most of about 100 Ansats in Russia’s national inventory come with a relatively simple avionics suite for visual flight rules (VFR) operations. Meantime, the local avionics specialist Ramenskoye PKB has developed a new IFR-compliant glass cockpit with a digital moving map and a database for objects and obstacles. Thus outfitted, the Ansat can be flown by a single pilot in adverse weather conditions, day or night. “The next step will be new rotor blades. We have already tested them at the Central Aerohydrodynamics Institute [TsAGI],” Boginsky said.
Overall, the Ansat represents a dynamically developing program with the potential to make significant sales, including to Arab countries. Having secured Emirati investments in both the manufacturer and its products, Russian Helicopters now feels assured of success in the global marketplace.