Helicopters: all about the engines

For the helicopter industry, reducing the operating costs and the ecological impact are key issues. Jacques Brochet, VP Engineering at Turbomeca (Safran group), explains how the engine manufacturer is gearing up for this.

What makes the engines so important for the future of the helicopter industry?

The engine is the keystone of the modern helicopter and its performance. It is also its financial Achilles' heel, since it represents 30 to 40% of the DOC (Direct Operating Cost). The engine manufacturer is therefore in the frontline in the face of oil prices, which will no doubt begin to soar once its production starts to decline. Reducing fuel consumption, which is our priority objective, will therefore allow us to gain on both these fronts: lowering the DOC and reducing pollutant emissions.

What levels of reduced fuel consumption are hoped for, and what solutions is Turbomeca putting forward to achieve this?

By 2020, we aim to reduce by 25% the specific fuel consumption of the engine, the CO2 emissions by 25% and the NOx emissions by 60% with, into the bargain, a 10dB reduction of noise levels. We shall obtain these performance gains by improving the existing technologies, without departing from the dominant concept which is the gas turbine. Over the past 25 years, experience has shown us that we gain on average 1 to 1.5% each year on specific fuel consumption and in power to mass ratio. This trend will be consolidated through our increasingly efficient leverage of the possibilities offered by the control system using a FADEC, by developing compressors and turbines fully in 3D, introducing variable blade settings, improved control of the inherent play in the compressors and turbines, etc.

How are you preparing for the future on a more long-term basis?

After 2020, these efforts will no longer suffice. We shall no doubt arrive at a dead-end with small and medium-powered turbines, simply due to the laws of physics. Additional gains will then have to be found with other technological concepts, whereby the power will be supplied by a combination of different energy sources, each operating at its optimum. To pave the way to this future, Turbomeca has launched a "groundbreaking innovation" initiative with a small, bespoke team. Its work involves making the link between disparate pockets of knowledge in order to tease out the applications that are unsuspected at the outset.

By combining engine gains per se with the gains obtained via the improvements to the rotor and the integration of the engine in the airframe, it is possible to imagine that, towards 2025, we will have reduced the fuel consumption of the helicopter by half.