HAI Convention News

Innovative Bell Shows Radical Rotorcraft

 - March 7, 2017, 12:35 PM

Bell Helicopter’s FCX-001 concept helicopter is just one of the futuristic ideas that members of Bell’s innovation teams have developed. While not intended as a production helicopter, the FCX-001 is a way of examining future rotorcraft technologies and potential ways to put those into action in future helicopter programs. Nevertheless, the concept that the teams came up with is a fascinating glimpse into the future, and a mockup of that rotorcraft, built by Roush Enterprises, is here at the Bell exhibit (Booth 11249). 

During a pre-Heli-Expo press event at Bell’s Fort Worth, Texas, headquarters, Bell innovation team members gave visiting reporters a walk-through view of the concept helicopter and Bell’s V-280 tiltrotor, using a virtual reality system designed to show off new technologies. Wearing virtual reality goggles, we were able to fly along as a “crewmember” on a virtual V-280 Valor tiltrotor mission that included low-level flying through mountainous valleys, landing at a base under fire from enemy soldiers and blasting an enemy vehicle with a handheld grenade launcher.

The walkthrough of the FCX-001 was much more sedate and illustrated some interesting ideas generated by the innovation teams, which Heli-Expo attendees can see for themselves in the FCX mockup at the Bell exhibit. 

With an airframe slightly longer and wider than a Bell 412, the composite FCX fuselage frames a glass-enclosed cockpit and cabin poised on aerodynamic main gear legs topped with a slimmed-down tailcone and a tiny vertical stabilizer with no tail rotor. The five main rotor blades look ordinary until their ends, where morphing technology takes over, allowing the last few feet of the blades to swing fore and aft to optimize rotor dynamics. The morphing blades also help control tip noise in real time, and Bell has applied for a patent on the design.

Anti-torque control of the FCX is vectored thrust through vanes in the tailboom, driven by electric motors for quieter operation, eliminating the weight and complexity of tail rotor drive shafts, gearboxes and blades. Two thermal engines are the main power source for the FCX, but there were no specifics given on their provenance.

Of course, flight controls are fly-by-wire, a technology that Bell believes can be adapted from its 525 Relentless and tiltrotor designs to many other rotorcraft types. The lone pilot—yes, there is just one seat for the flight crewmember—will be aided by artificial intelligence and may even be redundant, as the FCX could be optionally piloted. In either case, cockpit displays will also be redundant as the pilot would use augmented reality and a wearable head-up display to manage FCX flight.

Behind the single pilot seat is an elegant cabin outfitted with two rows of four seats and augmented reality features—“for information, entertainment, or communication”—to make flying more comfortable. Quick configuration changes are aided by modular flooring. 

The process that resulted in the FCX started with a challenge by Bell president and CEO Mitch Snyder, who wanted to see the ultimate form-follows-function machine that is a helicopter get some attention on the design side, to make helicopters look more beautiful, according to Levi Bilbrey, creative team lead. The idea was to help Bell’s artistic experts learn more about engineering, and vice versa, by working together and sharing ideas. Hundreds of sketches whittled down to 12 preceded the FCX, which was number five of the 12. The engineers helped the artists understand the physics that constrain helicopter operation, and the artists helped the engineers cut loose and indulge the creative sides of their brains. 

“We put our egos and assumptions aside,” said Bilbrey. “Can we challenge ourselves and the industry to do a concept aircraft and think about how they might look in the future?”