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Easing the load: How helicopter cockpits are changing

As engineers and researchers from across the industry continue their ongoing quest to refine and enhance the next generation of rotary-wing aircraft, one key theme has emerged from the changes planned for the cockpits of tomorrow: a reduction in pilot workload.

Primarily driven by advancements in interfaces, arriving between 2025 and 2030, helicopter crews will be able to allocate more time than ever before to mission management.

The same period will likely also see a growth in the number of types using fly-by-wire controls, but while artificial intelligence (AI) is being intensively studied by many companies, it has yet to work its way into a certifiable decision aid.

With less time spent on the physical aspects of controlling the aircraft, the pilot is able to spend more time focusing on the operation at hand, he added.

“In a medical evacuation, that would be coordinating with the nurse in the back, communications with air traffic control and the hospital, as well as coping with challenges such as night or weather,”

In the future, automation might see an aircraft take off and fly to a waypoint, avoiding obstacles, before hovering to pick up a patient and a physician.

In an operation such as firefighting, crews often have to deal with unexpected situations, and automation of the more procedural aspects of the flight could allow them to increase their focus on the more challenging aspects.

Sikorsky has conducted extensive research in that direction with the Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (SARA) demonstrator, an S-76 fitted with special equipment to give it various degrees of automation (see p.56 for our flight report).

The pilot in a conventional cockpit has to aggregate numbers from the variometer, altimeter, speedometer and fuel gauge, as well as engine parameters.

around the helicopter’s symbol [on a display] can represent the available power and its color may give a clue on the fuel level,”

Reducing the pilot’s workload saves cognitive resources, and greater mental availability leaves room for preparing action plans, Bey told Vertical.

the Airbus H135 light twin has been offered with a four-axis autopilot for a few years, while the Genesys HeliSAS is bringing complete two-axis autopilot functionality to a growing number of light aircraft types.

Referring to stability augmentation systems and autopilots for visual flight rules (VFR) helicopters, Bill Stone, Garmin’s senior manager, aviation business development, points out the amortization challenge.

In the terminal area of an airport, for example, a vocal order for a wind check is easier than manipulating the avionics, he suggested.

Over the last two decades, however, they have been a tantalizing goal for design engineers at helicopter OEMs, with the cost making a business case harder to prove than with their fixed-wing counterparts.

Dan Toy, principal business development manager for avionics at Collins Aerospace, said that making fly-by-wire affordable is a challenge, largely because controls have to be triple redundant, and this extends to every single element.

In case of a double engine failure (which statistically might happen once in an aircraft’s life), the pilot usually has to react within a handful of seconds.

Bell is thus testing a variety of physical configurations for flight controls in its future vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft, including the Nexus.

While such systems have proved to improve situational awareness in the fixed-wing industry and in military rotorcraft, they have yet to find their way into civil helicopters.

Due to their lower speed, wider field of vision and varied operations, helicopters would likely be better suited to head-worn devices.

AI may sound like a buzzword for cockpit improvement, but the kind of AI technology that has made spectacular progress in the consumer world is, to date, unsuited to cockpit electronics safety standards.

Keeping humans in the cockpit will continue to make sense for the foreseeable future, with automation simply serving to help increase the safety of their work.

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