Airbus Helicopters to conduct rotor blade research and investigate light armour

Safer, more reliable helicopter blades, and more lightweight armour protection for the aircraft are being developed in research being carried out in the UK.

Airbus Helicopters UK, based at Oxford Airport, is taking part in two government-funded projects to develop technologies for blade health monitoring and armour protection.

The first of the two projects, worth £2m and part-funded by the Aerospace Technology Institute, will develop technologies to measure blade deformations in flight.

The project, which also involves Cranfield University under the leadership of PhD student Simone Weber, BHR Group and SME Helitune, will develop a tool to constantly monitor rotorcraft blades during flight, and to measure their performance under different conditions, according to Richard Atack, head of design and engineering at Airbus Helicopters UK.

“The goal of the project is to implement a health and usage monitoring system,” he said. “So you would monitor the blades throughout the duration of the flight, and then the data would be downloaded to record any anomalies.”

That will allow operators to better understand how the blades fly, and ultimately therefore to extend the periods between maintenance and reduce costs.

The system will consist of a Fiber Bragg Grating, or a fiber optic cable with a series of sensors down its length. This will be laid onto the rotor blade, although in the future it may be possible to build it into the blade itself, said Atack. “This would then sense the stress and strain on the blade while it is deflecting in flight, and that would be recorded and matched against a mathematical model to compare how the blade should fly and how it is actually flying,” he said.

By better understanding how the blade performs under different conditions, it should also allow operators to optimise their flight paths and thereby reduce travel times, the company said.

The second project, worth £1.2m and supported by the Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain Initiative, will develop lower weight, lower cost helicopter armour. The project, which will be led by partner NetComposites under the Dual Use Technology Exploitation (DUTE) cluster, will aim to develop armour that can be produced at an increased rate, and to enable more flexibility in military helicopter design.

The team will be using a radio frequency tooling technique to mould woven composite armour into different shapes, allowing them to make better use of the material than with existing flat panels, said Atack.

The technique allows the material to be heated and cooled at different points. In this way the material can be moulded into shape when cool, and then heated at that specific point in order to solidify it.

“So if you wanted to build seat (armour) for example, you would typically use a back plate and two side plates, whereas this technique can produce one integral formed panel,” he said. “This would sit around the seat, so you wouldn’t have any weak points.”

The project will mature existing technologies, reducing their time to market from up to 15 years to three.

The technology could also be used in areas such as personal protection and body armour, a global market estimated to be worth £2.4bn in 2013. “Body armour typically consists of flat plates that sit on the chest, and the aim is to develop armour that is able to mould around the body,” Atack said.

Researchers at Sheffield Hallam University are investigating the ergonomics of the human form, to understand how a mouldable material would work with the body.

The projects are the first time Airbus Helicopters has participated in UK government-led industrial development, and are part of an overall strategy to increase its UK-based research.