The Army’s working hard to fulfill six big modernization efforts including a new utility helicopter to replace the UH-60. But now the Army has signaled it may need a new scout helicopter first, and a small design firm has a bold pitch for the program that looks like it’s been lifted out of a James Cameron movie but could be the future of Army aviation.
The design firm AVX has pitched to the military before, but you’re probably not familiar with their work. That’s because they don’t have a full aircraft to their credit or any big programs that everyone would recognize. But they’ve been quietly working to make military aviation better, winning maintenance contracts and bids to increase fuel efficiency.
And their work in the fuel efficiency space led them to propose a fairly radical redesign of the helicopter. Right now, the “traditional” helicopter design calls for one main rotor that generates lift and a tail, “anti-torque” rotor that keeps the bird pointed in the right direction. It’s the design at work on the Apache, the MH-6 Little Bird, the Lakota, and lots more.
But AVX wants to see more use of “coaxial” designs where the main rotor has two discs instead of one. They spin in opposite directions, stabilizing the helicopter without the need for a tail rotor. These coaxial designs are typically more efficient, and AVX wants to combine that with two ducted fans for propulsion, allowing for a helicopter that’s safer, faster, and more efficient.
AVX tried to get the Army to adopt these changes when it was looking to upgrade the OH-58 scout helicopter. The Army was looking to overhaul the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior, and AVX felt certain that giving it a coaxial rotor and two ducted fans would give the helicopter increased endurance, lift capability, cruise speed, time on station and range.
The Army ended up retiring the OH-58 instead of going through an overhaul, but that left it with no dedicated scout helicopter. Right now, the AH-64 Apache is switch hitting, serving as a scout helicopter and an attack helicopter. But Apaches are more expensive per flight hour, heavier, and require highly specialized pilots that the Army is already short on.
Getting a new scout helicopter would alleviate a few of these problems. But AVX isn’t as large or as experienced an aviation company as Bell, Boeing, Lockheed, or other companies that have produced rotary platforms for the Army. So AVX has partnered with L3 Technologies, another company experienced in supporting Army aviation.
And the aircraft these companies are pitching to the Army for the new scout helicopter? You guessed it: Coaxial rotor blade for lift and two ducted fans for propulsion. As an added bonus for efficiency, there are two stubby wings that will generate significant lift at high speeds.
It won’t have the ducted main rotors of the Aerospatiale SA-2 Samson from Avatar, but it’s easy to see how you get from AVX’s proposal for the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft to something like the SA-2.
Now, it’s far from certain that AVX will get selected by the Army. The Army wants to be buying and fielding the birds by 2024, an aggressive timetable that a small company will struggle to meet. And it wants to buy the aircraft for million apiece flyaway cost, meaning there won’t be a lot of room in the budget for inefficiencies and screwups. So, the Army may prefer a more experienced manufacturer.
But there are early elements of the design that signal a possible AVX advantage. First, despite all the tech required to make those coaxial blades and ducted fans work, the technologies are fairly proven and don’t add a whole lot to cost. Also, the program has ambitious requirements for speed, size of the aircraft, and agility, and the AVX design fits the bill if it makes it through selection and manufacturing process without any big compromises.
So the next helicopter looking over your shoulder in battle might just look like a science fiction aircraft, but don’t expect Michelle Rodriquez to be flying it. She’ll most likely be busy with Fast and the Furious 14.