It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a new flying machine

1014MEM_Cover.inddBy the year 2154, humans will have severely depleted Earth’s natural resources.

This isn’t a prognostication or a personal political proclamation, it’s the premise on which the hugely successful 2009 film Avatar is based.

If the notion of Earth’s depleted natural resources weren’t enough, the plot gets unimaginably more intriguing from there. Those who saw the movie know what I’m talking about, but even if you didn’t see it, you might remember watching some of the spectacular footage from the film in ads showing aerial battles waged in futuristic helicopters over the varied, extraterrestrial terrains. The film’s creative team was rewarded for its imagination and imagery by winning Oscars for best art direction, best cinematography, and best visual effects.

These images stirred the imagination. Blog posts following the movie’s release marveled at the mighty looking mechanical systems that lift vertically and whip around with power and might. Some bloggers speculated whether elements of these helicopters already existed and wondered whether such high-powered vehicles could ever be manufactured.

The U.S. Army wondered the same thing, but its concerns are, obviously, much more serious than those of bloggers or movie producers. Current military helicopters are based on designs of the 1970s and 1980s, while faster and durable civilian rotorcraft have been ushered by advances in engines and other technologies.

In 2008, the U.S. Department of Defense began defining the scope of a project to replace the legacy helicopter fleet with next generation vertical lift aircraft. The initiative, called Future Vertical Lift (FVL), represents a family of platforms across all of the U.S. defense departments. The DOD brass believes that some of the technology developed under FVL will also help civilian industry in the form of advances in rotating machinery and operating efficiencies.

Two years ago, the Army funded a program called Joint Multi-Role (JMR) Technology Demonstration “to inform future acquisition programs that fulfill the FVL initiative,” said retired Lt. Col. Dan Bailey at a keynote session a few weeks ago during ASME’s Design and Manufacturing Impact Forum. Bailey is the program director for JMR and FVL and, having logged more than 325 hours of combat duty in Apache and Black Hawk helicopters, certainly knows a thing or two about the topic. He said the goals of the program are air vehicle demonstration and mission systems architecture demonstration.

Around the same time as Bailey’s speech, the Army selected two industry teams to develop this new type of helicopter. The Bell unit of Textron Co. in partnership with Lockheed Martin Corp. represents one team; the other is a team of Boeing Co. and Sikorsky Aircraft Co. Analysts say that, by creating a competition, the Pentagon is testing a new way to develop and purchase weapon systems.

If development of these advanced aircraft ultimately gets the green light, we won’t have to wait until the Avatar year of 2154 before they’re flying around, but it won’t be before the mid-2030s either. By then, Earth’s natural resources won’t likely be depleted (this month’s power and energy articles provide some insight on that), but there’s no word yet from the DOD if the Avatar brain link project will have gotten the go-ahead.



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The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

October 2014

Twitter from John Falcioni

Twitter from Engineering for Change

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