Prolific helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky was one of many companies participating in this week’s Electric VTOL Symposium, which was part of the Vertical Flight Society’s 2022 Transformative Vertical Flight event in San Jose, California. In a presentation that teased expectations of news over the Lockheed Martin subsidiary’s plans for the advanced air mobility (AAM) sector, strategy lead Jonathan Hartman tantalizingly spelled out what it views as technological priorities for product development, without delivering a specific punchline regarding what the market can expect from the group.
“We need to start talking about operationalizing these technologies,” Hartman said. “How do we take something that is rather abstract and turn it into real products and applications that customers can apply to their businesses?”
At the top of Sikorsky’s priorities for a new generation of technologies are electrified powertrains. “Whether we’re talking about architectures that are all battery-powered, fuel cell-powered, or hybrid, the ability to shift from mechanical drive trains to electrified ones has the potential to change the way our products are used in both current and emerging missions,” said Hartman, without explicitly referencing his company’s current family of rotorcraft. “As an industry, we’ve been working on configurations that enable enhanced speed missions and cruise while retaining the low-speed handling capabilities that our aircraft are known for.”
Optionally piloted technologies will also play a big part in improving the way customers use VTOL aircraft. “The selective automation of traditional piloting functions will allow users to reduce workloads and enhance safety while operating in low altitude, often cluttered, and highly dynamic environments,” added Hartman.
Here, Sikorsky is leaning on its suite of Matrix technology solutions. Combining software and hardware components, the systems' intelligence program gives operators the ability to fly their large rotorcraft reliably as autonomous or optionally piloted aircraft. “As we continue our active conversations with the FAA, we’re excited about Matrix’s potential to attack and reduce one of the leading safety drivers in the vertical lift industry—controlled flight into terrain,” said Hartman.
Last but not least, Hartman told the VFS audience that data will play a transformative role in future VTOL operations, something he already sees happening at Sikorsky. “Our customer care center receives data from rotorcraft around the world,” he said. “The analysis we’re able to generate from this data has enabled increased availability, decreased unscheduled maintenance, and an overall increase in platform value.”
Steadfastly avoiding any specific projections about Sikorsky’s product development plans, Hartman implied that any strategic decisions in this regard will hinge on further engagement with its customer base as to their future mission requirements. Back in 2010, the company announced plans to develop an all-electric helicopter technology demonstrator called Project Firefly that involved converting a Schweizer 300C aircraft, but it remains unclear what outcomes this prototyping exercise has delivered for any plans Sikorsky may have in the AAM sector.
This week's presentation at the VFS symposium left the audience none-the-wiser as to whether Sikorsky has any intention of matching rival Airbus Helicopters' ambitions in the AAM sector. Last September, the European manufacturer announced plans to bring a four-seat eVTOL called CityAirbus NextGen to market in 2025.