New energy, intelligent tech future trend for choppers: top designer
China unveils fully electric hexarotor aircraft at helicopter expo
Published: Sep 13, 2023 11:23 PM Updated: Sep 13, 2023 10:30 PM
A concept visual of the AR-300 fully electric VTOL aircraft. Photo: Courtesy of AVIC

A concept visual of the AR-300 fully electric VTOL aircraft. Photo: Courtesy of AVIC

At an upcoming helicopter expo on Thursday, China is set to unveil a type of fully electric hexarotor aircraft that can switch between manned and unmanned modes for multiple types of missions. On Wednesday, a top chopper designer noted that new energy and intelligent technology could greatly change helicopters and their applications.

The development of new energy technology has brought huge challenges to conventional helicopters, while the progress and application of intelligent technology will have a significant impact on the application fields of helicopters, Deng Jinghui, a chief designer at the China Helicopter Research and Development Institute under the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), told the Global Times at an open-day event held on Wednesday at the institute in North China's Tianjin, a day ahead of the 6th Tianjin Helicopter Exposition set for Thursday to Sunday.

Conventional helicopters, characterized by their use of fuel, are now being challenged by new concepts and new configurations, as many new "helicopters" or as they should be called vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft, no longer rely solely on rotors for lift and control, but adopt multiple configurations, for example, a combination of helicopter and fixed wing aircraft, Deng said.

With the development of new energy, electric-powered VTOL aircraft do not follow the conventional helicopter concept of focusing on the rotor, the drive system and the engine, and instead use electric motors to replace fuel engines and use multiple, distributed rotors to replace single, large rotors, Deng said.

These revolutionary changes have lowered the technical requirements for research and development, said the designer.

Fast progress on new energy battery technology will also promote the development of electric VTOLs. Some of the new batteries are already sufficient for a 2-ton-class helicopter to transport a crew of five 200 kilometers in two hours, Deng said, noting that this means it has the capability of daily transport.

These aircraft only cost half as much as conventional helicopters, while achieving the same performance, so the price advantage is very significant, Deng said.

The AVIC China Helicopter Research and Development Institute has also actively promoted pre-studies on future helicopter technology in recent years, including intelligent, unmanned and green technology.

An example of intelligent technology is its application in flight safety and easiness.

"Helicopters today are complicated and challenging to steer, but intelligent technology will in the future relieve pilots of stress in flying, allowing them to steer more easily and flexibly. Additionally, intelligent technology, sensors and cognition technology will assist pilots in decision-making, helping them carry out evasive maneuvers," Deng said.

At the helicopter expo, AVIC will display its innovative capabilities and achievements in research and development of fully electric VTOL aircraft, hydrogen-powered aircraft as well as combat simulation platforms and easy landing technology, the Global Times learned.

One of the exhibits will be a genuine AR-300 aircraft, a hexarotor aircraft fully powered by electricity thanks to its high performance battery, electric motor and electronic control system.

Designed based on a modular concept, the AR-300 has a fuselage fully made of composite materials and can quickly switch between manned and unmanned modes.

In civilian applications, it can be used for tourism, urban transportation and delivery of materials, while for military purposes, it can play unique roles in missions like battlefield transport, fire strikes and reconnaissance.

Another multi-rotor aircraft on display, the M20, uses high pressure hydrogen as an energy source and is characterized by its long endurance, low noise, high maneuverability and simplicity in transport, Deng said.