When Sikorsky launched its online Entrepreneurial Challenge to identify small innovative firms it could help incubate, I was intrigued. Now they have announced the first winner, I am surprised – it’s a company I have come across before.
Pankl Aerospace Innovations is a company established by Austrian automotive and aerospace manufacturer Pankl Racing Systems, a supplier of transmission components to Sikorsky through its California-based Pankl Aerospace business.
Pankl is working on several rotary-wing technologies it has packaged together in a concept called HERO, for Helicopter Equipped with Reconnaissance and Onslaught (sic). The concept combines new materials, drive train and cockpit philosophy.
Pankl won the competition for its response to the challenge seeking adaptive signature control and active survivability technology. Sikorsky is careful to say it is interested in the individual technologies and not the overall concept, which is a bit outlandish.
Pankl detailed the HERO concept and its technologies in a presentation to the American Helicopter Society International’s Forum 68 in Fort Worth early in May. So pin back your ears, because you are in for a wild ride…
The fuselage has a lightweight, stretchable skin made of fiber-enhanced, polyurethane-coated Lycra (think of BMW’s GINA concept car). The flexible fabric enables a retractable forward wing that is deployed to increase lift at high altitude.
The fabric is covered in bendable pentacene thin-film transistor displays that project dynamic, real-time images of the helicopter’s environment on to the fuselage skin to provide active camouflage.
An active noise-cancellation system using flexible, transparent loudspeakers made with thin-film carbon nanotubes and applied to the fabric and blades would reduce noise and vibration to improve comfort and reliability, Pankl says.
The drive train has two interleaved main rotors and two ducted rotors for propulsion, all electrically driven by a redundant hydrogen-oxygen fuel-cell engine. This layout eliminates both geaboxes and tailrotor, the company says.
The main rotor blades are unusually short, to reduce noise, and have sinusoidally scalloped leading edges – inspired by the humpback whale’s flippers – that increase rotor maximum lift by delaying blade stall, Pankl says.
Pankl’s cockpit philosophy is based on dividing pilots into different user groups, say novice and expert, and uploading settings to the helicopter that configure the controls and touchscreen displays to suit the needs of each group.
A novice would be able to “drive” the helicopter most easily and intuitively, the company says, with fewer controls and displays and multiple automated flight-control modes for stability, cruise, combat and emergency maneuvers.
“An expert pilot would be able to access and configure all relevant controls and systems as today,” says Pankl. Uploading the settings by docking an iPad or iPhone in the cockpit would provide for rapid reconfiguration.
Autorotation after an engine failure would be automated, the novice simply hitting an emergency button. A wounded expert pilot would be able to bring the helicopter home by automatically following a pre-programmed route.
While it sounds like every schoolboy-designer’s wish list, Pankl is progressing the technologies. It has engaged the FH Joanneum University of Applied Sciences in Graz, Austria, to develop the basic layout for the HERO, and plans to fly a small-scale prototype to demonstrate visual camouflage.
Testing of the fuselage textile material is under way and work has begun on the camouflage system with its cameras and bendable displays. Windtunnel tests of the “bionic” blade versus a reference NACA profile were conducted in February.
It may all seem very whacky, but Sikorsky at least is taking Pankl's technologies seriously.