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The eVTOL and wider advanced air mobility (AAM) industries must adopt a wide-ranging, holistic approach to the sector, focusing not just on individual platforms but increasingly on the infrastructure that will support the technology in the coming decades, according to Sikorsky Innovations.
Best known as a helicopter manufacturer, Sikorsky has not publicly disclosed any eVTOL platform development, opting instead to develop technologies that could power and guide the platforms.
It has made particular recent strides in its work on AAM infrastructure, notably collaborating with Otis Elevator to demonstrate a vision for future architecture. It further expanded this vision through its Towards a Three-Dimensional Future digital document that was unveiled at Heli-Expo earlier this year.
The infrastructure work reflects a belief in a holistic approach to AAM, said Jonathan Hartman, strategy manager at Sikorsky Innovations. This goes beyond a focus on platforms alone.
“Instead of having to piece together a multimodal transportation solution, the vision is that system users would simply be able to choose where they wanted to go, and the back-end system would optimize the best combination of fixed and mobile infrastructure to get them there,” Hartman said.
This holistic approach, incorporating a vision of the supporting infrastructure and platforms, remains relevant today, Hartman said, perhaps more than ever. The vertical lift industry must think differently about how it integrates with the physical infrastructure that supports operations.
“We call it the ‘last meter’ integration problem to highlight that we need to be spending as much time talking about the last few feet of the mission as we do about the other 99% of the flight time,” he said.
There are various challenges in this AAM work, Hartman noted, with Otis and Sikorsky working to tackle these. For example, he pointed to Sikorsky’s work in optionally piloted technologies, which would “improve platform safety and enable high-density airspace operations.”
Sikorsky is seeing growing commercial and military interest in its autonomy technology, Hartman said. The company’s Matrix suite is developing optionally piloted platforms that could be incorporated into future eVTOL platforms, among a range of other uses. The company has seen heightened interest in such applications, Hartman said.
“While hardware and software components of ‘autonomy’ continue to evolve, we have seen a commensurate increase in our customers’ understanding of the potential benefits of the technology, and the level of interest has certainly accelerated,” he said.
This is seen on both the commercial and military sides, Hartman noted. For example, he said Sikorsky is “actively engaged with the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] on certification projects involving Matrix and is pleased with the progress being made on regulatory baselines to enable the technology to be widely adopted across a range of fixed-wing and rotary platforms.”
In the defense domain, Sikorsky participated in the U.S. Army’s Project Convergence 2021 as part of the Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program. This Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program saw Sikorsky showcase its optionally piloted vehicle (OPV) Black Hawk helicopter. The participation in Project Convergence “is a clear indicator of the U.S. Army’s interest in the technology’s impact on current operating paradigms,” Hartman said.
The manufacturer is pursuing efforts in a range of other areas. For example, Hartman said the company is actively engaged with electric and hybrid-electric powertrain technologies, though it is not yet able to publicly share details of the investments.
“We’re considering a wide range of potential technologies and aircraft size classes that those technologies might be applicable to,” he added.
Hartman said the company believes electrification of VTOL powertrains “has the potential to simplify aircraft, dramatically reduce cost and maintenance, and improve fuel efficiency.”
However, he said it is important to note that the evolution does not need to be binary, with a number of opportunities to pursue hybrid technologies before moving to all-electric applications.
“Hybrid architectures offer a number of potential advantages while minimizing the trade-off of aircraft payload and mission range, which is important to our entire customer base,” he said.
Sikorsky Innovations works with other advanced technology organizations from across Lockheed Martin, allowing it to leverage programs from the F-35 to Orion.
“We are also investing significant resources as a corporation in digital transformation,” he said. “This collaboration reduces the cost of maturing new technologies and accelerates the time it takes to develop, certify and deploy them to our customers.”