After unmanned trials, Connecticut’s Sikorsky plans electric helicopters

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Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin drew attention this month after successful test flights of a helicopter with no one on board as the plane flew through an airpath simulating the urban canyons of Manhattan.

The next big thing for Sikorsky Innovations? A helicopter that would be barely noticed with just the flapping of its rotor blades announcing its arrival and no echoing roar of the turbine engines.

In his demo this month of a helicopter with computers and sensors to execute precise landings and complex unmanned flight paths, Sikorsky only mentioned in passing another initiative that is gaining momentum at its Connecticut headquarters.

At its Stratford plant, Sikorsky develops helicopters with lightweight electric motors with the power and runtime to replace heavy combustion engines.

In November, Sikorsky and its parent company Lockheed Martin won their latest U.S. patent for an electric drive capable of providing the power needed to lift a mid-size helicopter like a Sikorsky Black Hawk or an S-76, and maintain flight for a long period. Sikorsky has received a number of patents since 2008 on different iterations of the technology.

Proponents of electric helicopters argue that these planes will be safer and cheaper to maintain, with far fewer parts exposed to wear and tear like gearboxes and transmissions.

“Don’t just think military – we look at all markets, military and civilian,” said Igor Cherepinsky, head of Sikorsky Innovations, in an interview with Hearst Connecticut Media Group. “Being able to land quietly in Manhattan without the noise may mean accepting helicopters much more than it does now.”

Cherepinsky offered no timetable for when Sikorsky might launch a “demonstration” helicopter to test the capabilities of electric-powered flight, but said the manufacturer was actively developing the concept. The company is doing so even as a Department of Defense decision looms over a possible replacement for the Black Hawk helicopter, which could set Sikorsky up for decades of Pentagon contracts.

A dozen years ago, Sikorsky demonstrated a functioning all-electric helicopter at an Experimental Aircraft Association show in Wisconsin. The Sikorsky Firefly could only stay in the air for 15 minutes, and with room for the pilot alone to accommodate the large lithium-ion batteries it drew electricity from.

But Sikorsky is now in catch-up mode. In California, Joby Aviation has already conducted more than 1,000 test flights of an electric tilt-rotor aircraft, having received an “airworthiness” certificate from the US Air Force and applying for one from the Federal Aviation Administration.

On Wednesday, one of Joby Aviation’s two prototypes crashed during a flight test. The company has not released details of what happened, but the pilot was not reportedly injured. It remains unclear whether an investigation into the accident will cause a delay in the FAA certification process.

In a statement, Joby Aviation said safety is a “core value” for the company.

“Experimental flight test programs are intentionally designed to determine the limits of aircraft performance, and accidents are unfortunately a possibility,” the company said. “We will help the relevant authorities to fully investigate the accident.”

In a November conference call with investment analysts, Joby Aviation CEO JoeBen Bevirt highlighted the S4’s safety covering the plane itself as well as the batteries that power it.

Powered by six sets of blades, the Joby Aviation S4 can lift a helicopter and then tilt its rotors forward to fly like an airplane. In a flight test last year, a pilot flew the plane 150 miles in just over an hour and a quarter.

Backed initially by Toyota and Uber Technologies, Joby Aviation is focusing on what it believes is an emerging market for “air taxi” service between cities and airports and other destinations.

In November, Bevirt described the company’s rotor blades as “less wop-wop and more like the wind in the trees.”

The company has posted a video online measuring the S4’s decibel differential against several other aircraft as they fly overhead, including a Leonardo helicopter similar in size to the Sikorsky S-76.

“We believe in taking on challenges that others avoid – we approach them without preconceptions and work hard and fast to solve them,” Bevirt said in November. “Delivering an aircraft with a low noise footprint is fundamental to bringing our service closer to where customers want it.”

Many others work for the same purpose. Early last year, the Vertical Flight Society tracked nearly 200 companies or designers working on electric planes that could take off and land like a helicopter.

One is Bell, a subsidiary of Textron, based in Rhode Island, which pioneered tiltrotor technology with the V-22 Osprey for the US military. For the past three years, Bell has teased a tilt-rotor helicopter with six sets of blades, but configured like those on the fictional plane depicted in the movie “Avatar.”

Airbus is floating what it calls a “multicopter” that can take off vertically. And Boeing flew an electric plane designed by subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences.

For those already accustomed to the quiet driving of electric vehicles, the benefits in everyday aviation are evident in a drastic reduction in noise near helipads.

But for the military – Sikorsky’s main customer – a quiet helicopter also has major implications when it comes to surveying hostile territory or dropping off commandos undetected.

Couple electric power with the autonomous flight capabilities that Sikorsky demonstrated this month, and Cherepinsky says a new generation of helicopters is on the horizon that will be much safer to operate in urban environments, much quieter and with other benefits as well.

“Electrically powered planes are cheaper and they’re more environmentally friendly, so it makes economic and ecological sense,” Cherepinsky said. “But the reason we are doing all of this is – above all – safety. We want to significantly improve rotorcraft safety.

Alex.Soule@scni.com; 203-842-2545; @casoulman

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