The National Business Aviation Assn.’s (NBAA) annual convention is like a holiday for the civil business aircraft industry. Typically there are gifts of new and enhanced fixed-wing and rotary aircraft on display on the convention floor and at a nearby airport. Attendees gather each year to see aircraft and technologies currently available and what could be unveiled in the near future.
This year, there could be buzz surrounding the not yet certified but fully designed business aircraft of the future. These aircraft under consideration include commercial tiltrotors and drones, as well as flying cars built by companies not typically associated with aviation.
Airbus, which is known for producing large commercial airliners, has a unit designing a flying car that will one day relieve traffic in some of the world’s large congested cities.
Two other business aircraft manufacturers offering new, or relatively new, equipment for consideration are Leonardo with its AW609 tiltrotor and XTI Aircraft with the TriFan 600. XTI is raising capital to build the first prototype of its aircraft.
Leonardo’s AW609 prototype No. 2 broke up in midair during high-speed tests over Italy in late October 2015. Despite the delay in the program, Leonardo anticipates FAA certification of the aircraft in 2018. It would be the first commercially certified tiltrotor.
Leonardo also is pursuing certification for the AW609 in known icing conditions and plans to incorporate the latest avionics and fly-by-wire flight control system.
Leonardo could not elaborate on the 609 as the manufacturer awaits a full accident report, but said it remains committed to mitigating delays that the accident and investigation might pose.
Prototype No. 2 (bearing the registration N609AG) was 27 minutes into a flight test Oct. 30 when real-time telemetry was lost, according to Leonardo.
The high-speed tests scheduled for that day included high-speed tests that “had already been performed” by the No. 1 prototype. The crash occurred 30 miles southwest of Leonardo production facility in Vergiate in Northwestern Italy. Both the pilot and copilot were killed. Italy’s national agency for flight safety (the Agenzia Nazionale per la Sicurezza del Volo, or ANSV) investigated the crash. The manufacturer voluntarily suspended the prototype’s flight tests after the Oct. 30, 2015, crash of the No. 2 prototype.
On June 23, Leonardo received the interim statement and safety recommendation from the ANSV and is now awaiting the final report that will include the cause of the accident. The company has already begun implementing ANSV’s safety recommendations contained in the interim report.
In late summer 2016, the company resumed flight-testing. Thus far, the company has exceeded 1,300 hours of flight tests in prototype No. 1, which recently arrived in Philadelphia as it transitions to its facility in Italy.
Leonardo conducted a ground run of aircraft No. 3 in Cascina Costa earlier this year, with that Philadelphia-based prototype preparing for the initiation of flight tests by the end of the year.
Leonardo has added a number of key systems and components to the aircraft as it reaches the industrialization and production phase. It has selected the Rockwell Collins Pro Line Fusion avionics system and is working with its platform development partners, Bristow Group and Era Helicopters.
In March, Era signed a memorandum of understanding at Heli-Expo in Louisville, Kentucky, to develop an emergency medical services variant of the commercial tiltrotor aircraft.
Era sees the commercial viability of the AW609. Era said its cabin size, payload and cruise speed with vertical lift is appealing, since EMS applications would involve one crew, one platform and one service area. Because the AW609 has been designed to operate within existing rotor and wing infrastructures, it allows for direct patient services. This is a huge benefit and really differentiates the 609 from traditional fixed-wing delivery methods.
Bristow earlier this year signed an agreement to help develop the AW609 for commercial service, specifically as a transport for offshore oil and gas operations and as a search and rescue vehicle.
“We see an opportunity to offer clients a complete logistics service utilizing the AW609, especially those that operate in more remote and hostile environments,” said John Cloggie, Bristow’s chief technical officer and VP of operations transformation.
The AW609’s speed, extended range and lift capabilities make it an ideal vehicle to transport work crews from airports to offshore oil and gas platforms. The company also sees the AW609 as ideal for long-range medical evacuation, said Cloggie.
Bristow also is considering the AW609 as a vehicle for its U.K.-based regional airline, Eastern Airways, and Darwin, Australia’s Airnorth. Making a tiltrotor aircraft work in commercial airline service could be the biggest challenge for Bristow. Direct operating costs for tiltrotors are higher than conventional helicopters and significantly higher than those for fixed-wing airliners.
Based on an early cost-per-seat mile analysis, Leonardo said the AW609 has advantages in trips of longer distances.
Attracting corporate operators to the AW609 is a primary goal of the manufacturer. Leonardo plans to fit the VIP-configured AW609 with spacious and comfortable interiors replete with high-capacity baggage compartments. Cabin noise will be reduced through a passive and active vibration control system.
A VIP cabin mockup introduced at Heli-Expo in March 2015 showed a spacious cabin with six seats. A wide aisle allows for seats on both sides of the aircraft, with two rear seats separated by a center console. A number of current corporate and executive helicopter customers have installed luxury seats in the AW139 and the GrandNew. That trend is expected to continue with the AW609, said the manufacturer.
Presently, Leonardo has 60 varying agreements for the AW609. This includes firm orders for three units by the Joint Aviation Command of the United Arab Emirates. Several Fortune 500 companies have expressed strong interest in the AW609, but Leonardo could not disclose any specific customers.
The 609 VIP cabin mockup was to have been displayed at the Japan International Aerospace Exhibition last month. The mockup also was on display this year at Milan’s science and technology museum.
Though years from certification and first delivery, the TriFan 600 could become the principal competitor of the AW609. Both manufacturers are targeting the lucrative corporate market for their respective aircraft.
“Most of our marketing studies favor the corporate executive market,” XTI Aircraft Founder and Chairman David Brody told R&WI. “The whole idea of this aircraft is to save owners and users hundreds of hours in travel time.”
The tiltrotor also could be used for search and rescue, border patrol, EMS and other applications where vertical takeoff and landing benefits operators.
"The whole idea of this aircraft is to save owners and users hundreds of hours in travel time." —David Brody, XTI Aircraft
The TriFan 600 will use three ducted fans powered by two Honeywell gas-turbine engines. Once airborne, the two wing-mounted fans rotate forward to provide power, similar to what other tiltrotor aircraft do in reconfiguring from vertical to horizontal flight. The center fan, which is used only to help provide vertical lift, is covered during cruise.
Each turboshaft engine will provide 2,600 shp, said XTI. That power will enable the aircraft to lift passengers and crew off the ground and achieve a top speed of around 390 mph. Cruising altitude for the TriFan 600 will be between 35,000 feet and 40,000 feet. Projected range is between 800 and 1,600 statute miles, depending on payload, said Brody. XTI’s website listed the range at 1,500 nautical miles. The aircraft will be able to seat six people comfortably.
Brody said affordability is a principal reason the TriFan 600 would be a better product. “One, the AW609 will be about three times more expensive than our aircraft,” said Brody.
XTI estimates that the TriFan 600 price will range between $10 million and $12 million, versus the $30 million flyaway cost for the AW609.
XTI has added additional partners to its TriFan 600 program. In August, XTI signed an agreement with Honeywell Aerospace to supply its HTS900 engine for use in XTI’s two-thirds scale TriFan 600. Honeywell also will provide an additional engine for use in XTI’s Ground Propulsion Test System.
XTI’s chief engineer, Dennis Olcott, said XTI selected Honeywell because the HTS900 is the newest member to Honeywell’s family of engines “incorporating a next-generation dual-centrifugal compressor architecture.”
To fund the engines and build the two-thirds scale prototype, XTI is counting on its equity crowdfunding initiative, a two-year, $15 million program. The development steps include a 10% flying scale model by the first quarter of 2017, the test stand using a Honeywell engine, followed by the 65% subscale piloted aircraft using the Honeywell HTS900 engine. Completion of the program is dependent on raising the needed funds, said Brody.
The initiative is open to accredited and unaccredited investors.
“We have raised a significant amount with this program,” said Brody, who declined to divulge the specific amount.
To capture additional funding, XTI entered into an agreement with New York investment bank Primary Capital LLC, for XTI’s $20 million Series B initiative for accredited investors only. The agreement with Primary Capital expands XTI’s ability to raise funds to build the two-thirds scale prototype and reduces the risk for early and potential investors, said Brody.
Airbus is stepping outside of its comfort zone with its ventures.
The company is working on an autonomous flying vehicle program called Vahana, which has implications for individual passenger transport and as a vehicle for carrying cargo. Flight tests of the first vehicle prototype are slated for the end of 2017.
Airbus said the company is not yet ready to provide additional information on the subject, but an in-house article on the Airbus Group website provided a glimpse of what is to come.
Project Executive Rodin Lyasoff said A3, Airbus’ innovative design segment located in Silicon Valley, is spearheading Vahana. A3 said it is designing an autonomous flying vehicle for passenger and cargo transport that hopefully will relieve urban congestion.
Meanwhile, Airbus Helicopters in Germany and France is working on a flying taxi, dubbed CityAirbus, an electrically operated platform that could serve multiple passengers. The CityAirbus, as it has been dubbed, would have multiple propellers and resemble a drone in its basic design.
Airbus said the feasibility study has been completed, “and the conclusion is favorable.” Plans are for this aircraft to be flown by pilots initially and then become a fully functional unmanned vehicle once the aircraft is certified.
In the Airbus article, Lyasoff insisted these vehicles of tomorrow were feasible. “Many of the technologies needed, such as batteries, motors and avionics are most of the way there,” said Lyasoff. That said, these self-driving vehicles would likely need sense-and-avoid technologies. The technology exists for self-driving automobiles, but not yet for aircraft.
“That’s one of the bigger challenges we aim to resolve as early as possible,” said Lyasoff.
Car and bus transport service providers are primary target groups for such vehicles, said Airbus. Like Uber, customers would theoretically book one using a smartphone.
“We believe that global demand for this category of aircraft can support fleets of millions of vehicles worldwide,” added Lyasoff.
Another division of Airbus is considering the viability of getting into the drone parcel delivery business.
In February 2016, Airbus said it would test a drone parcel delivery service on the National University of Singapore in mid-2017. The goal would be to test the commercial viability and safety of commercial drones over urban areas. The drones will operate simultaneously across the campus using defined “aerial corridors.”
Airbus said it is developing an autonomous Octocopter and infrastructure based on an operation management system developed by Airbus Defense and Space.
Other industry giants are considering the viability of developing autonomous vehicles. As Google’s cofounder, Larry Page is a name well known to Silicon Valley. But the aviation community might not know of his significant financial support of small flying car design companies Zee.Aero (which was formed in 2010 but remained below the radar until recently) and Kitty Hawk, another startup that is trying to tap into this market with a separate flying car design. Both companies are located near Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California.
Page could not be reached for comment on these projects. One staffer at Zee.Aero declined to comment on the project, but the operation has grown lately with millions of dollars being poured into the venture. According to published media reports, Page has invested $100 million of his own money into Zee.Aero VTOL-capable aircraft.
No further information on Zee.Aero has been disclosed.
Elsewhere, there is future aircraft activity worth noting. EHang, a Chinese-based company developed by Beijing Yi-Hang Creational Science and Technology, is working with the state of Nevada on developing the EHang 184, a large drone that has the potential to carry a single passenger for 10 miles at 60 mph. The aircraft is 4.5 feet tall and weighs about 440 pounds.
The sole passenger would summon one by entering a destination into a smartphone — like Uber. The 184 also can be used as a mini EMS transport to deliver blood and other medical supplies.
The Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems gave permission to EHang to conduct flight tests in the state. The short-haul, all-electric 184 has eight propellers and four arms that can be folded and stored when not in use. The 184 was unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show held in Nevada in January. The company currently sells a standard-size drone called the Ghost. R&WI