Eurocopter plans to develop a two-step approach to introducing its advanced X4 helicopter with the first version entering service in 2017.

The X4 is aimed at the AS365 Dauphin/EC155 replacement market in the medium twin, 9,000 lb to 11,000 lb category, with first flight in 2015. The intermediate configuration will be followed by a second, updated variant in 2020.

The second phase will see the X4 configured with fly-by-wire flight controls and more advanced avionics and systems, says Eurocopter CEO Lutz Bertling. “We truly believe it will be a game changer. With the X4 we intend to improve noise by 70% and reduce fuel consumption by 30%,” he adds.

Working in partnership with Thales and Sagem, Eurocopter is developing a “different philosophy to flying a helicopter,” says Bertling. “There are several solutions to improving flight safety such as the man-machine interface.” Referencing the move made by Airbus to digital fly-by-wire and side-stick controllers with the A320 in the 1980s, Bertling says the X4 flight control system and its cockpit controls will represent a similar leap.

However, as some of the flight control technology will not be sufficiently mature in time, Bertling says the “first version in 2017 will be a state-of-the-art technology helicopter” but will not feature all the elements of the final X4. “We’ve learned our lesson from programs like the Tiger and NH90. It’s better to have a stepped approach.”

He also says the phased approach will help operators and pilots transition to the updated flight control philosophy which moves towards a single inceptor, rather than the traditional cyclic and collective pilots’ controls.

Meanwhile, flight tests of the X3 compound helicopter are set to resume later this month following an extensive period on the ground for “a major safety inspection, without any findings,” says Bertling. The aircraft, which reached a top speed of 232 kt. in May 2011, will be brought over to the U.S. to perform demonstration flights in the June-July period.

Although Eurocopter would like to see the X3 flown to higher speeds than the 250 kt. achieved by Sikorsky’s semi-compound design, Bertling says “to be honest speed is not the most important thing. The most important thing is to gain experience with the concept.”

Challenges to be overcome as speed increases include designing the cockpit canopy for increased aerodynamic loads and bird strike resistance. The first product to use X3 technology may be fielded from 2020 onwards, says the company.