Shock absorber could reduce helicopter fatalities

The loss of life resulting from helicopter crashes may be prevented with a new inflatable shock-absorption system that deploys before impact.

Aerospace safety-systems supplier Aero Sekur has announced that it is preparing to unveil such a feature for the civilian and defence helicopter market by 2012.

Mark Butler, chief executive of Aero Sekur, said the system will soften the blow of unplanned landings on land and sea. This can potentially save lives and inhibit damage to the helicopter airframe.

He explained that the shock-absorption system combines aspects from two of the company’s technologies. These include Aero Sekur’s safety-flotation systems, designed for keeping helicopters upright and afloat following crashes into water, and vented-airbag technology, which was originally developed as part of the ESA Exomars programme to help Mars probes land safely.

Like the flotation system, Butler said the shock-absorbing airbags will be deployed with a Non-Pyrotechnic Inflation System (NPIS).

The airbags will inflate with helium as soon as a specially engineered valve blows open. This valve can be triggered manually or automatically, he said, depending on the customer’s requirements.

Butler said that the system will also incorporate a sensor array similar to the one used by the Exomars vented-airbag technology.

He added that the helicopter is guaranteed to crash land safely because the array will detect the aircraft’s orientation on uneven or sloping surfaces the very moment it touches the ground.

In total, the system is expected to add 150kg of weight to a 9-ton helicopter.

While many of the previous systems’ aspects can be transferred to this new technology, Butler noted that the polyurethane-coated Kevlar material used for the water-based flotation bags will not be robust enough to resist the punctures and abrasion that could be attained if a helicopter slams into rough terrain.

Butler said the new shock-absorption and flotation airbags will be constructed from layers of specialised material that are each optimised to meet a single performance criteria.

‘We’ll have a demonstrator of the system working next year,’ he said. ‘We hope to at least have it working on prototype aircraft by 2012.’