After decades waiting in the wings, the rotorcraft R&D community is mobilizing to develop what could become the U.S. Army's first clean-sheet design since the 1970s.

The Joint Multi Role (JMR) concept evolved from an exhaustive analysis of U.S. vertical-lift needs, which included a painful assessment of the shortfalls of current rotorcraft and gaps in industry capabilities. The conclusion was that another round of upgrades for existing platforms would no longer meet the military's requirements and that a technology demonstration program was needed to get industry up to speed to deliver a next-generation rotorcraft.

The JMR technology demonstration (TD) is intended to apply to all classes of Army rotorcraft from armed scout to heavy lift, but is focused on the medium utility class because replacing the Black Hawk fleet “offers the biggest bang for the buck,” says Ned Chase. He is JMR technology-demonstration team lead and chief of the platform technology division at the Army's Aviation Applied Technology Directorate (AATD). The Army wants to field a medium-utility JMR by 2030.

The JMR TD will be divided into two parts—Phase 1 for the air vehicle and Phase 2 for its mission system, which lags by two years in recognition that electronics advance faster than airframes, rotors, engines and drive systems. Both phases are to be completed by the end of fiscal 2019, when the Army plans to be in position to launch the engineering and manufacturing development program for a next-generation rotorcraft.

The JMR TD will be the culmination of a decade-long rotorcraft science and technology (S&T) road map that has been followed without it being clear, until now, exactly how and when it would be applied and whether to upgrading existing helicopters or developing all-new rotorcraft.

“In the 2004 timeframe, we looked at what we needed to address and where to invest,” says Chase. “We looked at the Army's aviation gap analysis and asked the Defense Department, NASA and the FAA to participate in formulating an investment portfolio that would stand the test of time,” he says. “Our investment strategy has been constant over time. There have been budget changes, but the portfolio has stayed relatively stable.” Chase believes that stability has given industry confidence about where to spend its own R&D money. “Industry has matched almost every dollar we have spent,” he says.

Confidence will be critical, because AATD needs significant cost-sharing from industry to achieve its goal of flying two competing demonstrators. The Army has committed funds for a single air vehicle, with $188 million budgeted in fiscal 2012-16, but AATD hopes funding from other services and cost-sharing by industry will enable it to afford two competing aircraft. “I think we can find a way to do two,” Chase says.

Of the money budgeted, $75 million is so-called BA4 dollars, usually provided by programs to fund prototypes. By establishing this funding line, the Army hopes to bridge the “valley of death” that often prevents technology transitioning from S&T to programs, Chase says.

Whether the funding is sufficient is another issue. “It's not clear how much technology will be demonstrated,” says Mike Hirschberg, executive director of the American Helicopter Society International. “It's easy to do a demo with a certain amount of money. It's easy to demonstrate advanced technology with sufficient money. You can't demonstrate a lot of next-generation technology with an inadequate amount of funds.”

While the U.S. Navy has expressed interest in joining the JMR TD, it has not put money in yet. As for whether the demonstration plan and Army commitment to JMR are strong enough to attract the industry investment for which AATD is hoping, Hirschberg says: “If it's 50% cost-share, I think the answer is no.”

JMR is not exactly what AATD thought would emerge when it laid out its S&T road map. “It was all leading to a demonstration on a single vehicle, but we did not anticipate it would be a representative demonstration for whole fleets of aircraft,” he says. “The demonstrator had to be outside the bounds of something that already existed, but it was not as comprehensive as what is planned with the JMR technology demonstration.”

Whether the medium-utility JMR is a helicopter or some other rotorcraft type will emerge from configuration trades and analyses now being performed by Boeing, Sikorsky, tiltrotor joint-venture Bell Boeing, tiny AVX Aircraft and an independent government team. As Army S&T has been directed toward conventional helicopters, compound-helicopter and tiltrotor configurations could require additional technology maturation.

“What is different is that the demonstrator may or may not be a helicopter,” says Chase. “As originally laid out, our portfolio addressed the needs of the current fleet. Now there is solid acknowledgment of future fleet needs that must be addressed,” he says. That raises a question about the technology base. “Is it still adequate for something that may not be a helicopter? That's the challenge.”

The goal of the configuration trades and analysis phase is to take the laundry list of vehicle attributes that rotorcraft operators say they want, and recommend concepts and technologies to meet them. The studies will prioritize specific attributes, such as higher speed and optionally manned capability, by establishing their payoff on the battlefield, and evaluate the value and affordability of candidate configurations.

The trade studies will help prioritize the often-conflicting vehicle attributes desired by operators. “The community is coming to an understanding of where the trades are, but they are not at a decision yet,” says Chase. “And we are not ready yet, but there will come a time when we need to snap a line.”

The end product will be a performance specification for the JMR air-vehicle technology demonstrators. “The trades finish in late summer, and the last version of the spec will be out for comment soon after. The next specification will be part of the [Phase 1] solicitation in early 2013,” Chase says. “Industry will not build to the spec. They will demonstrate the technologies that would enable them to meet the spec if they built to it,” he stresses.

“The configuration trades are trying to identify how we address the group of attributes with the technology we have, and what we have to invest in to meet the end goal,” Chase says. “The trades will tell us to what extent we can meet the performance the customer wants. Many of the attributes are mutually exclusive. We would have a humungous aircraft. The studies will narrow down the trade space to where a reasonably sized aircraft can do the right amount of things.”

In parallel, Phase 2 will get under way to demonstrate the mission system—ideally in the air-vehicle demonstrators themselves, but alternatively in surrogate aircraft. This will kick off with the award of multiple contracts for mission-system effectiveness trades and analyses—equivalent to the configuration studies—to feed into the Phase 2 specification.

Proposals for the mission-system trades were due on April 1 and, as with the air-vehicle studies, contractors will be asked to identify those “game-changing” technologies that need maturing through flight demonstration to be ready for JMR development.

The mission system will be built on the open-system Joint Common Architecture (JCA), based on the Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACE) reusable-software standard developed by government and industry. “JCA is going to be key to any future aircraft,” says Keith Arnold, who leads the teaming and intelligence team in AATD's systems integration division. “JCA has got to work if we are to change the way Defense Department aircraft are built and bought, and it's a big part of what JMR is about.”

A JCA demonstration is planned for fiscal 2014-15 and will feed into the JMR TD Phase 2, beginning in fiscal 2015, “which will develop specific pieces of the mission system and take others that exist and make them work together in a new architecture and airframe,” Arnold says. “We'd like to put the mission system on one of the air-vehicle demonstrators, but that injects risk. So only the stuff that has to be will be tested in flight on the Phase 1 vehicles. What we can, we will test in surrogate vehicles or on the bench.”

Elsewhere, AATD programs are lining up technology that could be used in JMR. In the rotors domain, the Army is having to rethink its plans after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency decided not to proceed with its Mission Adaptive Rotor program. Instead, AATD has issued a solicitation for Phase 2 of its Reconfigurable Rotors program. The objective is to use active and passive techniques to improve efficiency by 10% in hover and 8% in cruise, and reduce acoustic detection range by half and vibration by at least 90%.

“We're asking for a high-performance, low-noise, low-vibration rotor,” says Chase. Phase 1 tested active rotor components, and a hub-mounted vibration suppressor will be flown this year. “We want hover and cruise efficiency. We want active noise and vibration reduction. The problem is controlling all of that at the same time, and getting data across the rotor plane to on-blade devices.”

In the engines field, JMR will be able to draw on two AATD programs, but neither will be ready for the demonstrators. The Advanced Affordable Turbine Engine (AATE) program is developing a 3,000-shp drop-in replacement for the General Electric T700 powering the Boeing AH-64 and Sikorsky UH/MH-60. GE and Honeywell/Pratt & Whitney are running competing ground demonstrators, and the Army plans to launch full-scale development in 2013 under the Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP).

AATE goals include a 65% increase in the power-to-weight ratio and 25% decrease in specific fuel consumption (SFC). The Future Affordable Turbine Engine (FATE) program, awarded to GE in September, will take the next step, targeting an 80% increase in power-to-weight and 35% cut in SFC. FATE covers the 5,000-10,000-shp range suitable for the Boeing CH-47 Chinook and a medium/large JMR. GE will decide this year the size of demonstrator to be run in 2015.

In the transmissions arena, AATD is wrapping up the Enhanced Rotorcraft Drive System program with Boeing, demonstrating a 40% increase in power-to-weight. The follow-on Future Advanced Drive System program is getting under way with Bell and Sikorsky, to demonstrate a 55% improvement in power-to-weight by 2015.

“We see AATE and FATE providing the foundation to support the current fleet and enabling future vertical lift,” says Gary Butler, engine systems team leader at AATD. But neither program is likely to find its way into the JMR technology demonstrators, at least initially. “It would take three years to get them flight rated. Transmissions do not take quite as long to qualify.”

Other programs under way in areas such as aircrew survivability, platform durability, advanced fly-by-wire and manned-unmanned teaming do have technology to contribute to JMR. “A lot of things are coming together at the right time,” says Chase. “We invested a lot of time and human capital in coming up with an investment strategy, and now the technologies are coming home to roost in the form of a demonstrator.”