Airbus’ official maxim is: “We make it fly.” Based on a new high-speed demonstrator rotorcraft concept unveiled today by Airbus Helicopters at the 2017 Paris Air Show, this motto could be aptly updated to: “We make it fly… fast, and efficiently.”
Leading a project within the Clean Sky 2 European research programme, Airbus Helicopters has developed the compound rotorcraft configuration that is optimised for a cruise speed of approximately 400 km/h while also taking into account the tradeoffs for cost-efficiency, sustainability and mission performance.
A high-profile introduction for Racer
Named Racer (for Rapid and cost-effective rotorcraft), this concept was unveiled during a press briefing today at Le Bourget Airport on Day 2 of the Paris Air Show, and is being exhibited in scale model form at the international industry gathering. Clean Sky 2 is the European Commission-organised public and private partnership initiative to develop and demonstrate civil aircraft technologies that can reduce emissions and noise, while also ensuring the future competitiveness of Europe’s aviation industry on a global scale.
The Racer concept utilises a main rotor for lift and basic flight modes, along with two lateral pusher rotors that generate thrust in forward flight and a box-wing to provide lift in cruise mode.
“Seventy years ago, [American test pilot] Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier,” said Guillaume Faury, CEO of Airbus Helicopters, at the Racer announcement press conference. Now, he said, “we’re trying to break the cost barrier. It cannot be ‘speed at any cost.’”
A “virtuous circle” of improvements
Racer builds on the expertise Airbus Helicopters developed with its self-funded X3 high-speed demonstrator, which also was a compound rotorcraft design that set a speed record in June 2013 of 255 kts in forward flight.
“The X3 demonstrator showed that high speed, highly efficient results can be obtained when the main rotor’s rotational speed is slowed down during forward flight, and thrust is provided by propellers mounted on a wing that provides lift,” explained Tomasz Krysinski, the Vice President – Research & Innovation at Airbus Helicopters.
“The X3 flew a total of 350 hours with excellent results – which were confirmed by pilots from many countries who were given the opportunity of being at the controls,” Krysinski added. “In the second step with Clean Sky 2, we are now taking a clean-sheet approach in creating a new demonstrator that shows its suitability for the missions – which include emergency medical services, search and rescue, public services, along with commercial and business aviation.”
A notable feature of Racer is the staggered, step-wing arrangement – called the box-wing – which Krysinski describes as bringing a “virtuous circle” of improvements.
“The staggered-type box-wing has a smaller overall surface than a normal wing, so it is less affected by performance-reducing rotor downwash; and therefore, less power is required to hover,” Krysinski said. “However, the box-wing’s upper and lower segments create all the lift we need in forward flight.”
The path forward for Racer
Another advantage is the ability to integrate the landing gear into the box wing’s lower segment. This facilitates the kinematics for the landing gear’s retraction, while also providing lower weight and lower cost.
For the Racer demonstrator, its propellers are installed on the back of the box-wing in a pusher arrangement (compared to the forward-mounted puller configuration on the X3), reducing the power required during forward flight by 10 per cent – thereby lowering fuel consumption and increasing flight range. An additional benefit is increased safety, as the pusher propellers are positioned farther away from the doors used for boarding and deplaning – with extra protection provided by the double wing itself.
Final assembly of the Racer demonstrator is planned to start at Airbus Helicopters in 2019, with a first flight the following year. It will be based on a hybrid metallic-composite airframe, with the two RTM322 turboshaft engines linked by a supercritical shaft to drive the main rotor and pusher propellers. An electrically-powered “eco mode” will allow one of the RTM322 powerplants to be stopped in flight – and quickly restarted when needed – thus generating fuel savings and increasing range.
The Airbus open digital aviation platform
Also at the Paris Air Show today, Airbus announced a partnership with Palantir Technologies to launch a new aviation open digital data platform called Skywise. With this step, Airbus will become the architect and integrator role for this next revolution in aerospace.
To deliver this capability, Airbus and its partners are joining with Palantir, the world’s leading company in complex data integration. Airbus will exclusively promote the creation of a brand new open ecosystem of solution developers and software around this platform.
“I think we’ll look back a few years from now and say: ‘this is where we really launched connected, fully-digital aviation,” said Tom Enders, Chief Executive Officer of Airbus.
The CEO of Palantir, Alex Karp, was equally enthusiastic, saying, “On our end, this is just about the most exciting thing we’re doing.”
New business for Airbus jetliners at the Paris Air Show
Airbus Commercial Aircraft announced new orders and commitments for its widebody and single-aisle jetliner families during Day 2 of the Paris Air Show.
Ethiopian Airlines placed a repeat order for the A350-900, acquiring 10 more. The airline was the first African carrier to operate these widebody jetliners after receiving the first of a dozen A350 XWBs last year.
Announcing the purchase during a standing-room only press conference at Le Bourget Airport, Tewolde GebreMariam, the Group CEO of Ethiopian Airlines, said: “We’ve been a very loyal customer of Boeing for a very long time. We were looking for the right airplane. Now that we have found the A350 XWB to be the right airplane for us, we are very happy we made the decision.” The aircraft will be powered by Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engines. The announcement was followed by a signing ceremony.
U.S.-based Delta Air Lines placed an order for 10 additional Airbus A321ceo aircraft, coming on the heels of its orders for 30 incremental A321ceo jetliners just last month. Separately, Dublin-based CDB Aviation Lease Finance DAC (CDB Aviation) became Airbus’ latest customer for the A320neo with the signing of a memorandum of understanding for 45 aircraft, consisting of 30 A320neo and 15 A321neo aircraft. And Viva Air, the Latin America low-cost carrier group owned by Irelandia Aviation, signed a memorandum of understanding with Airbus for 50 A320 Family aircraft, comprising 35 A320neo and 15 A320ceo jetliners.
Looking to space… and back to Earth
Airbus also was active at a higher altitude during the Paris Air Show today, with Airbus Defence and Space taking a step closer to launching the next generation of very-high-resolution optical observation satellites.
Becoming the first commercial customer for Europe’s evolved Vega C lightweight launch vehicle, Airbus Defence and Space signed with the Arianespace launch services company to orbit the four satellites in this observation satellite constellation from the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana, as from mid-2020. Designed to deliver images of each point on the globe several times a day, these extremely-agile optical satellites will keep a close watch on the constantly-changing planet Earth.
Arianespace is a subsidiary of the Airbus Safran Launchers joint venture, which holds 74 per cent of its share capital – with the balance held by 17 other shareholders from the European launcher industry.