Carbon ThreeSixty is leading a project to design, develop and manufacture an ultra-low mass, robust, proof-of-concept carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) wheel for helicopters.
Co-funded by Innovate UK, the 18-month NATEP project is being delivered in partnership with the National Composites Centre and collaboration with Leonardo.
According to the team, the global market for helicopter wheels uses metallic light-alloy materials, usually aluminium or magnesium, that offer sufficient strength and stiffness at relatively low density.
A wheel made of CFRP will offer significantly enhanced mechanical properties at approximately half the density of metallic wheels. Compared to aluminium alloys, a CFRP wheel will be lighter, with higher performance and an extended working life.
The fibrous microstructure and resin stability of advanced composites mean that fatigue life and corrosion resistance can be much improved when optimally designed. They also offer weight savings of around 30-40 per cent over forged aluminium and improved NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) performance.
It is anticipated that weight reductions will allow airframers to deliver efficiency, range and payload improvements whilst providing an option for propulsion systems such as battery-electric. Composite wheels will also be interchangeable with existing wheels, making them suitable for retrofit.
Ed Allnutt, Managing Director of Carbon ThreeSixty said: “We believe the key selling point, however, will be the improvements in fatigue life and failure mode which will extend life and improve safety.”
The project will use tailored fibre placement (TFP), braiding and out of autoclave processes to ensure repeatability and scalability. The partners add that novel product and process design will enable them to protect IP required to manufacture the products.
Alex Doyle, Technology Project Lead of National Composites Centre said: “Composite wheels have only become viable in the last 10 years due to improvements in resin system toughness, lower carbon fibre prices and improvements in process automation. We can see this in the automotive wheel market, where they are now proven.
“However, aerospace applications are more challenging. The shift in cost, combined with the technical improvements are the reason why now is the time composite wheels are feasible for aerospace rotorcraft applications.”
The scope of the project covers the specification, design, development, manufacture, inspection and testing of a proof-of-concept helicopter wheel, considering full aerospace requirements in line with the specification provided by Leonardo.