Helicopter technology today is defined in Europe.” Eurocopter President/CEO Lutz Bertling attributes this statement to an unnamed U.S. rival, and it is a statement he is happy to repeat, in part because there are few independent observers that would quibble with the premise that the Franco-German helicopter maker and its Italian rival AgustaWestland have been far more aggressive in product innovation than many of their competitors.

But Sikorsky, Bell Helicopters and even Russian Helicopters are not content to let the current state of play remain. And as they look to modernize their own products, offerings, AgustaWestland and Eurocopter are trying to maintain their lead through several initiatives. One is simply to create new types—the AW189 and EC175 are due to come to market soon. The manufacturers are pushing both products at Heli-Expo 2012 in Dallas Feb. 11-14. Another initiative is to find different ways to package their offerings to boost market penetration.

An approach gaining the attention of both is embracing a family concept for their different models. This would mirror, to some extent, how Airbus and Boeing work to capture customers with one model that acts as an incentive to adopt others. Even if with helicopters, the aircraft size changes, “you can apply a very similar philosophy” in terms of support, procurement and mission equipment, says AgustaWestland's senior vice president for marketing, Roberto Garavaglia.

Helicopters such as the AW139, AW169 and AW189 will share similar technologies, cockpit philosophies, and certification and safety standards, he says. “With a similar cockpit approach, you could save hours transitioning crew from one model to the other,” Garavaglia adds, echoing the Airbus cross-crew certification approach.

AgustaWestland is hoping that this strategy will make it a “one-stop shop” for some customers, he notes.

Executives at Eurocopter are thinking along the same lines as they consider how to bring to market the technology being demonstrated in the X-3 high-speed hybrid helicopter. Bertling says one of the key aspects will be preserving commonality with standard types. “For logistics reasons, we will want to have high commonality between the conventional ones and the high-speed version,” he says. The level of commonality needs to be at least around 70%.

Eurocopter has little doubt that the technology of the X-3, which is in its third year of flight trials, can be commercially viable, but Bertling says the economics have to be closely managed. That includes boosting speed by 50% and life-cycle cost just 20%.

AgustaWestland's high-speed bet remains focused on the AW609 tiltrotor. With the buyout of Bell Helicopter Textron's share in the joint venture completed last year, AgustaWestland hopes the pace of progress with the civil tiltrotor will pick up. As rivals, such as Sikorsky and Eurocopter, bet on hybrid approaches, Garavaglia argues that the tiltrotor “is the most energetically efficient way to do this type of mission.” The increasing ranges being demanded by oil and gas operators as their drilling sites move farther offshore will play into the AW609's hands, he asserts.

One area where Eurocopter is looking to diverge from the family concept is with the X-4, the putative Dauphin replacement. This is because the technology it hopes to introduce under that program is aimed at ushering in a new baseline on which to build a new product family.

The company is reluctant to discuss details, but Bertling acknowledges the plan is still to field an initial version with state-of-the-art technology and follow a few years later with another leap based on technologies that are in development now. The X-4 is to deliver a 30% reduction in fuel consumption and noise and introduce a new approach to flying, with pilots managing a fly-by-wire system.

But even as manufacturers keep a keen eye on what is to come several years from now, the near-term emphasis is still to flesh out their product portfolios. For Eurocopter, that means achieving type certification for the 7-metric-ton EC175 to regain ground lost to rival products such as the AW139. Both certification and first customer deliveries are planned for this year.

At AgustaWestland, both the AW169, due to fly this year, and the AW189, which achieved its first flight Dec. 21, are in the pipeline. Flight trials of the latter are proceeding well, Garavaglia says. The 16-18-passenger long-range aircraft is aimed at bridging a gap in the company's offerings to the offshore market. Garavaglia says it can provide Super Puma-like performance in a smaller package. To ease operations on oil rigs, AgustaWestland also is providing an auxiliary power unit on the new twin-engine helicopter.

Certification of the AW189 is scheduled to be achieved next year and deliveries to begin in 2014. Although it was launched only last year, AgustaWestland has tried to build on the design and development experience of the AW139 to expedite the process on the AW189. “Time to market was essential,” Garavaglia says.

The 4.5-metric-ton AW169 is targeted at emergency medical service and police forces. It should receive its type certificate in 2014 and begin reaching customers in 2015.