Steam helicopter takes to the skies

A steam-powered helicopter which can be used as a potential unmanned target for guns and missiles and as a `sky hook’ for suspending other targets goes on flying trials at Salisbury Plain next week.

The Firebird, developed in the UK by Essex-based military avionics refit company Intora, is powered by small jets mounted on its rotor tips that chemically convert liquid hydrogen peroxide into superheated steam.

If trials are successful, the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency will help Intora promote the aircraft. Potential applications include customs and border patrols, and pipeline inspection.

The Firebird is based on work begun in the US in the 1980s to develop a lightweight, one-man helicopter. In 1997 Intora bought the rights and has now developed manned and unmanned versions.

The 36mm diameter jets mounted on the tips of its 6m-long rotors each contain a disposable catalyst pack of stainless steel and silver mesh. When 85% liquid hydrogen peroxide is pumped through the mesh, it is converted to superheated steam and oxygen, producing 17kg of thrust, equivalent to the power of a conventional 75kW engine.

Since the drive is from the wing tips, not a central engine, the Firebird produces almost no torque and so does not need a tail rotor. A simple joystick control allows non-pilots to learn to fly it in a few hours, the company says.

The Firebird’s maximum speed is 100mph with a cruising speed of 35mph. Maximum flying altitude is just under 30,000ft and it can carry a payload of 250kg.

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