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Heli-Expo 2017: Bell reveals future helicopter concept (video)

7th March 2017 - 17:00 GMT | by Helen Haxell in Dallas

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Bell Helicopter has unveiled a new future helicopter concept featuring a range of next-generation technologies at Heli-Expo 2017 in Dallas.

The FCX-001 is a five-bladed new medium twin-sized aircraft, positioned as slightly bigger than the Bell 412 in length and in width.

Interestingly, the FCX-001 design incorporates one pilot seat because of fly-by-wire and autonomy capabilities.

Bell Helicopter CEO Mitch Snyder told Shephard in advance of the exhibition that in the first half of 2016 he tasked the innovation team at Bell, consisting of designers and engineers, to look at a future platform concept.

'With the engineering [and design] team working together, it was really interesting watching that dynamic work, particularly when you bring art and engineering together and [what] the trade-offs are to make this happen. We set the team loose on problem sets that we really wanted solved… we are really looking to improve rotorcraft to make it as safe as if you were getting on a commercial airliner,' Snyder commented. 'I really wanted to change the experience level, so we brought the art, the lines, the look and feel – something different. More future.'

Some of the project's goals were to focus on problem areas within industry that need solving, namely the user experience and future technologies that can enhance the platform.

The project was given a deadline of HAI Heli-Expo 2017 to showcase the concept through a full-scale mock-up, provided by Roush, an augmented reality experience within the cockpit and a virtual reality experience in the cabin.

At the drawing board, the Bell team whittled the concept down to 12 different looks before they settled with the final design – one heavily inspired by the notion of concept cars.

The passenger capacity will be eight to 12, although at HAI 2017, two rows of four passengers plus pilot are demonstrated.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of the concept is the anti-torque system implanted in the tail boom. This would enable a thrust vectoring capability for control, heightened performance and lower noise, commented Scott Drennan, director of engineering innovation at Bell Helicopter.

'I think you'll notice a very different anti-torque design. Bell Helicopter is traditionally an open tail rotor company. We like the efficiency – it's done us well for many years. We are looking at embedding the anti-torque system inside our tail boom and using it primarily to deal with anti-torque, but you'll notice a conspicuous lack of horizontal surfaces as well.

'So, our anti-torque system will also have thrust directing in to help us control that access. We are going to be looking at a different safety and noise paradigm for Bell with this design,' Drennan stated.

Another major focus for the FCX-001 project was hybridised propulsion. This combines advanced thermal engine cores for the main propulsion with electric distribution and motors to drive the system for further control and rudimentary vehicle operations and maintenance, according to company literature.

Drennan explained further that the powerplant would consider hybridised/alternate propulsion.

This would drive an electric hybrid system in the tail rotor for a hybrid anti-torque system. In this instance, it is likely that there would be multiple fans and an allowance for a venting system on both sides of the tail, so that it can thrust in either direction.

The airframe is made from advanced sustainable materials and various landing gear configurations were being considered, but at this stage of the design, wheels were opted for due to cosmetic reasons. However, this application could be determined by the role and functionality required by the operator.

The FCX-001 concept aircraft would not be equipped with a multi-function display – the company envisages instead that augmented reality and artificial intelligence will aid pilots of tomorrow with their missions.

'There's augmented reality in the cockpit… where screens come up in front of the pilot and he or she controls the aircraft from there. You see the environment and you pull up screens in your field of view. But you aren't actually in a virtual world – [the symbology] is in your goggles,' said Drennan.

With the artificial intelligence computer managing a fly-by-wire system, this would allow the concept aircraft to have an optionally piloted capability. Augmented reality would not be isolated to the pilot and the passengers would be able to use it for their infotainment and communication purposes.

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