In the January 2021 edition of Airbus Helicopters’ internally published magazine, ROTOR, CEO Bruno Evans wrote an article to reflect on the difficulties of 2020 for both suppliers and operators of the global helicopter industry. He introduces the issue with its purposeful theme dedicated to innovation: “Innovation is all about hope, optimism, new challenges and preparing the future… Engineering the future cannot be improvised.”
The issue focuses on a range of innovations from Airbus illustrating, that even as the industry continues to suffer through the pandemic with third-wave lockdowns across the globe, leading aircraft and systems manufacturers continue to move forward with critical research and development. For Airbus Helicopters this includes milestone achievements with its VSR700 program validating autonomy of operating to and from a moving platform; electric and hybrid-electric propulsion through programs like CityAirbus; the Flightlab testbed, which began operations in the spring of 2020; and five-bladed H145 and H160 development.
One of the most interesting innovation directions of Airbus over the past year has been its growing focus on alternative fuels and zero-emissions, which includes the parent company’s September 2020 introduction of three potential zero-emission aircraft. The company plans to launch its ZEROe program by 2025 with the goal of entering the first airplane into service by 2035. This includes a blended-wing concept aiming to leverage two hybrid hydrogen turbofan engines with liquid hydrogen storage tanks located underneath the wings.
Each of the three concept aircraft represent a different approach to achieving zero-emission flight, in terms of technology pathways and aerodynamic configurations, but they all rely on hydrogen as a primary power source via combustion or fuel cells. Hydrogen holds what Airbus describes as exceptional promise as a clean aviation fuel, as used in synthetic fuels (combustion) or as a primary power source (fuel cells), noting it is likely to be a solution for aerospace and many industries to meet future climate-neutral targets.
The company’s helicopter arm is also involved in this hydrogen push, as outlined in the January issue of ROTOR, in an article called Speed Up the Power, discussing a range of alternative fuels and hybrid engines. Airbus explains the ultimate step could be the use of hydrogen by replacing kerosene on modified turboshafts (a direct H2 burn, zero CO2 solution) or, second, by feeding a fuel cell to produce electric energy for a full electric propulsion system (a zero-emission solution).
Airbus notes this technology has made significant advances, particularly in the fixed-wing segment, but the power requirements and the integration on a helicopter remain a challenge. The company, however, projects hydrogen technologies could be mature enough to fly on a helicopter demonstrator as early as 2029.
Airbus outlines why it believes in the importance of developing sustainable alternative fuels for use on in-service rotorcraft and for future fleets, which will ultimately help the industry develop a healthy business environment. In the immediate future this will involve focusing on hybrid propulsion development, as Airbus outlines: “A mid-hybrid solution is being developed as a back-up for single-engine helicopters in the event of an engine loss: the electric engine can intervene for about 30 seconds of power to let a pilot manage a safe descent. The system is the first concrete application of hybridization on a light helicopter, and will be tested on the Flightlab in early 2021.”
Airbus Helicopters, through the resources of its parent company, will be a leader in understanding the potential for true CO2 reductions and the transition to sustainable energy sources will be both a significant challenge and opportunity for the entire aviation industry. Fully electric helicopter and eVTOLs are still challenged by energy storage, even with the amazing breakthroughs over the past year and ambitious 2024/2025 commercialization plans by some start-ups. Hybrid solutions could provide a bridge to the future.