Helicopter manufacturing giants are deep in the midst of assembling parts, testing, simulating and are heavily investing in a program that is meant to drive the Army's effort to buy a new state-of-the-art family of helicopters in the 2030s.

Two teams — Sikorsky-Boeing and Bell Helicopter-Lockheed Martin — are building rotorcraft flight demonstrators that will fly to start flying in 2017 as part of the Joint Multi-Role program that will gauge the art of the possible for the future of vertical lift.

The center of the effort is clearly focused on developing and building a flyable aircraft, but both teams are also honing in on using high-tech methods to streamline and improve how designs come together in modeling and simulation. These efforts are meant to drive down cost and bring technology to a readiness level that could potentially even allow the Army to skip over the technology and development phase of a Future Vertical Lift program of record and right into engineering and manufacturing development.

The teams have paid particular attention to cost given the unpredictable budget environment the Defense Department has faced in recent had to cope with over the past several years. There is much skepticism over whether the Army will call FVL a success story. The service hasn't been able to get a new helicopter program off the ground for decades, despite having tried several times. A shrinking budget is yet another hurdle to make that effort even harder.

So industry is investing in the JMR program heavily to help the Army along in the science and technology phase at a time when there are very few new Army programs on the horizon.

A full-scale model of the Bell Helicopter V-280 Valor tilt-rotor is displayed Monday at AUSA.

Photo Credit: Mike Morones/Staff

Sikorsky and Boeing are using coaxial rotor blade technology developed through Sikorsky's X2 program and its Raider program. Raider, which can be considered the little brother of the team's JMR demonstrator Defiant, is in flight tests at Sikorsky's West Palm Beach test facility. Defiant will join Raider in Florida for its flight tests.

Bell Helicopter and Lockheed Martin are developing a demonstrator using Bell-Boeing's V-22 tilt-rotor technology. The V280 Valor will be demonstrated in Amarillo, Texas.

Bell Helicopter's has brought its V280 simulator is being showcased at to this week's Association of the US Army's (AUSA) annual meeting in Washington along with a full-scale mock-up of the helicopter.

For the first time, Sikorsky is showing off its new rendering of Defiant in public at its AUSA booth, and its and is displaying, in public, not a mock up of its Raider helicopter is but one of the two flyable aircraft, not a mock-up.

Chris Gehler, director of Bell Helicopter's advanced tilt-rotor systems, said the V280 program completed its final design and risk review period in August. Spirit Aerosystems has also completed building the fuselage in Wichita, Kansas, and shipped it just prior to AUSA it was shipped to Amarillo just before AUSA.

"This is real. The aircraft is coming together now," Gehler told Defense News last week. "We've got all kinds of pieces and parts, different technologies and things that are yielding today and starting to flow to Amarillo."

The team will start mating the wings to the fuselage and continue assembling the aircraft as components become available through between now and next the summer of 2016, the aircraft will come together, according to Gehler said. "About this time next year," he said, the aircraft will look ready to fly and the team will be running pre-flight checks, ground runs, shake tests and other reliability activities.

Notably, the aircraft is first coming together in a simulated 3-D environment first, Gehler said.

A mock-up of Sikorsky-Boeing's coaxial helicopter, known as the SB-1 Defiant, for the Army's Joint Multi-Role Science and Technology Program sits on display Monday at Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C.

Photo Credit: Mike Morones/Staff

"It enables us, the Army, really to see and participate, as well as our subsystem teammates and partners around the world, to actually see this design in the 3-D environment and bring together their pieces, parts or subsystems designed in that same environment," Gehler said. This allows the whole team to talk daily and make changes as it becomes apparent, he added.

For example, when the fuselage came together after the fuselage was designed in the 3-D environment, "it basically came together almost perfectly," Gehler said.

The 3D tool, which was is a new technology developed in within the last two to three years, has the ability to "change the affordability cost curve on this thing, so your non-recurring tooling significantly reduces and front-end costs are reduced," he said.

Over 150 service members, both Army and Marine Corps, have also had a chance to fly in the V280 flight simulator. "It's not a marketing simulator," Gehler said. "It's actually the design of where we are on flight control law. I think everybody is pretty much blown away when they get in there to see how maneuverable the aircraft is at low speeds, but also how quick and nimble it is," Gehler said.

Doug Shidler, the Sikorsky and Boeing program director for JMR technology development, told Defense News the program is going through critical design activities and the team is working on building long-lead materials and parts.

The team has set up a systems-integration lab at Sikorsky in Stratford, Connecticut, that is used for integrating all the vehicle-management system components like fly-by-wire. The lab will be up and operational early next year, Shidler said.

Sikorsky and Boeing are also building a propulsion system test bed used to shake down and integrate dynamic components like the engine, transmission, the rotor head and blades.

The program director emphasized that the team is investing "quite a bit" to ensure it brings a capability that is fast, and that is highly maneuverable at low speeds.

Combining the X2, Raider and Defiant programs, all using the same technology, the team is also demonstrating the scalability of the helicopter, Shidler noted, which is likely to be important to the Army as it looks to build a family of helicopters with similar but scalable components for light, medium and heavy-lift. The X2 technology demonstrated in 2010 was a 6,000-pound helicopter, Shidler noted, Raider is 11,000 pounds and Defiant will weigh 30,000 pounds.

Bell's Gehler said he believes the Army is "very committed to the science and technology phase right now because the level of investment is huge for them," but he added, industry is also investing nearly 5 to 1 on the Army's S&T investment dollars.

And the biggest hurdle in moving JMR into the FVL program of record is the budget. "Our competition is more about budgets and legacy fleets," he said.

"This air vehicle technology is ready now, we don't need to wait until 2030 or beyond," Gehler added. "We could begin development in a program right at the end of this development in 2019 and be in production in 2025 ... We can always spiral in additional Mission Equipment Packages as Moore's law changes, the cockpit pieces can always be upgraded."

And with all the technology development that is happening now, Gehler said he believes there's potential to save hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions, when Future Vertical Lift comes online.

Last month, Richard Kretzschmar, who leads the Army's new Improved Turbine Engine and Future Vertical Lift program office, said if the JMR program goes well and FVL moves forward as planned, the future aircraft could reach low-rate initial production earlier than 2030.

Sikorsky's Shidler said Kretzschmar has asked to meet with his team to discuss schedule possibilities, but the meeting hasn't happened yet, so company has yet to sit down with him and therefore it would be premature to comment on FVL's timeline.

But, he added, "The current notional schedule that the Army has put out, the initial operational capability in 3034 puts the program into a very long program. I think we've seen long programs be a target for being canceled, so we want to do whatever is possible to make sure that is not the case."

Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.

More In AUSA