Canada Invests in VTOL Technology
By Kenneth I. Swartz
Canada is providing CAD$49.5M (USD$37.7M) in financial support for a major technology demonstration program (TDP) designed to advance five key technologies to support the development of urban air taxis, conventional helicopters and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). The Government of Canada announced on April 16 during International Aerospace Week in Montréal that it is providing the funding to an aerospace consortium of 20 industry and academic partners led by Bell Helicopter Textron Canada Ltd (BHTCL).
“Aerospace is one of the most innovative industries in Canada. Our government’s investment in this new aerospace consortium will create 300 well-paying research and manufacturing jobs, contribute $178M [USD$135M] to Canada’s [gross domestic product] and make Canada a global aerospace innovation leader,” said The Honourable Navdeep Bains, the Canadian Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development.
“This program will foster the development of new engineering and manufacturing knowledge and technologies by the Bell team in Canada. It will instill a new dynamic in the aerospace community and strengthen Canada’s role as an innovation leader in the vertical lift and [UAS] segments,” said Cynthia Garneau, President of Bell Helicopter Textron Canada Ltd.
Bell and its partners will be investing more than CAD$125M [USD$95M] through this TDP, which is expected to yield technology that can be employed in new vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft within five years.
Bell developed the TDP in close cooperating with Pratt & Whitney Canada (P&WC) and Esterline CMC Electronics. “This will be the first time that two OEMs and one major Tier 1 supplier will join forces on a TDP project, mobilizing a strong innovative network that is expected to have a multiplicative effect on the long-term economic benefits to Canada,” explained Michel Dion, innovation lead at Bell’s Mirabel site.
The consortium includes seven small and medium enterprises: Marinvent, TSLab, GasTOPS, Meloche Group, VAC AERO, APN and Exonetik. In addition, it will work with 8 academic institutions and two research centers across Canada:
- Carleton University
- Concordia University Dalhousie
- University Ecole de technologie supérieure (ÉTS)
- McGill University
- Polytechnique Montréal
- University of British Columbia (UBC)
- University of Calgary
- Centre de technologie aérospatiale (CTA)
- National Research Council (NRC)
“Bell’s FCX-001 and urban air taxi concepts … embody many of the technologies now being addressed in this five-year technology demonstration project,” explained Dion.
There are five key technologies covered by the TDP work package, all of which are applicable to vertical flight: energy management, advanced anti-torque, low-cost fly-by-wire, autonomy and situational awareness, and alternate propulsion systems.
The TDP for energy management will focus on making VTOL aircraft more energy efficient and encompass the use, creation and management of energy as well as noise reduction.
The advanced anti-torque work package includes systems that will change the safety, noise and performance parameters of vertical lift aircraft. On the FCX-001 concept aircraft (which Bell displayed last year at Forum 73 in Ft. Worth, Texas), for example, Bell showed a “cross-flow fan” concept that used a series of electrically-driven fans mounted in the tail boom for directional control.
The low-cost fly-by-wire system effort is focused on developing a system than is less expensive and less complex than the FBW system on the Bell 525, and can be installed on lighter aircraft, such as the Bell 505, 429 or future urban air taxis.
The autonomy and situational awareness work package involves multiple technologies and will include strong participation from Esterline CMC Electronics and the National Research Council.
P&WC is taking the lead on the alternate propulsion systems work package. “For a number of years, we have alluded to our interest in the concept of hybrid engines and we have been actively examining potential technology combinations … and the impact that on-demand mobility will have on the aviation industry,” said Nicolas Chabée, P&WC’s vice president of marketing and sales for helicopter engines.
“For our part, we are keeping everything on the table — gas turbine, hybrid and electric powered aircraft. This is a demonstrator program and as the name would suggest, we’ll be addressing the potential of a number of technologies. Our hope is that the technologies will be ready for use in commercial products by the end of the demonstrator program,” said Chabée.
P&WC said it will also be looking at a broad array of engine elements — materials, combustor, low- and high-pressure turbines, etc. Advanced manufacturing technologies, including additive manufacturing, will also be an aspect of the research undertaken through the demonstrator program. “Demonstrator programs are always undertaken with a final result in mind. Achieving that result — determining the right mix of technologies both new and existing — is the purpose of the demonstrator program. It’s a disciplined exploration of the possibilities and we keep an open mind as to what developments are possible,” added Chabée.
Bell is also continuing to work on its Hybrid Drive Train Research Aircraft (HYDRA) 1 distributed electric propulsion research platform in Canada where the aircraft was manufactured.
“The airframe for HYDRA 1 was developed at the Mirabel factory and first flew in a hangar on a three-foot [1 m] tether in December 2016 when Bell executives were visiting Mirabel to celebrate the certification of the Model 505,” recalled Dion. “Then we flight tested it in a farmer’s field near Hawkesbury, Ontario, after we received approval from Transport Canada”.
HYDRA I has traveled three times to the US for display at aerospace events, such as the VFS 74th Annual Forum in Phoenix in May, but all of its flights have been made in Canada.
“To develop the control laws for the aircraft we also built HYDRA 2, which was made to fly slower and constructed out of foam so it could easily be rebuilt if it was damaged in testing,” added Dion
“Previously, all the innovation projects undertaken at Bell in Canada have focused on airframes and materials. For example, we developed a thermoplastic tailboom for the Bell 407 and we tested a four-foot [1.2 m] long section in the lab to see how the structure performed compared to what we predicted with our models,” said Dion.
The New Bell
The investment through the TDP was made through the Government of Canada’s Strategic Innovation Fund, which aims to accelerate economic growth, strengthen and expand the role of Canadian firms in regional and global supply chains, support economic strategies, and attract investment that creates well-paying jobs. It also promotes collaboration among industry and universities, colleges and research institutions to encourage the development of a highly skilled workforce.
The addition of innovators to the workforce will be aided by the TDP investments from the Canadian government and the consortium members. “We have already started looking for people with experience in aircraft design and structures, avionics, flight controls and computational fluid dynamics experience, but we are also expanding our reach to hire people who would help us become more disruptive,” said Dion.
In April, Scott Drennan, Director of Innovation at Bell, and Thomas Prevot, Director of Engineering for Airspace Systems at Uber, visited Montréal to speak about their collaboration on the Uber Elevate urban air mobility program. The event was sponsored by the Consortium for Research and Innovation in Aerospace in Québec (CRIAQ) and the Vertical Flight Society’s Montréal/Ottawa Chapter. The networking event, held at the Palais des Congrès de Montréal (the site for the Annual Forum in Canada), attracted more than 500 aerospace professionals and students.
“We are welcoming a new era at Bell, a technology company, and are enthusiastic to be doing so with such a passionate group of partners,” said Garneau. “This program allows new technologies to emerge and offers a wide range of companies of all sizes an unprecedented access to new markets.”