WASHINGTON — Bell has pulled the shroud off its Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) design for the Army after keeping it under wraps as a competition for a chance to build prototypes heats up.
Several teams selected to develop FARA designs have been vocal and open about designs, but Bell — which has been flying its V-280 Valor tiltrotor helicopter for nearly two years as part of an Army demonstration to inform the requirements for a long-range assault aircraft — let the suspense build in this case.
The only hint of its plans came from the CEO of Textron, Bell’s parent company, who said during an earnings call that the FARA design would be based on its 525 technology rather than its tiltrotor design like the V-280.
The company revealed Oct. 1 at its Arlington, Virginia, office the Bell 360 Invictus, which is based on 525 technology, but with several key differences, including its size in order to adhere to the Army requirement of 40-foot in diameter rotor blades.
The 525 Relentless is a commercial helicopter that is larger than the Invictus design and, according to Bell, has hit speeds over 200 knots in tests. The plan is for Invictus to more than meet the Army’s speed requirement of 180 knots.
Bell plans to unveil a full-scale mockup of the aircraft at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual show beginning Oct. 14, but showed reporters a video depicting the aircraft’s capability to fly through dense urban terrain, ripping around skyscrapers and hovering over busy city streets.
“Bell is absolutely committed to providing the United States Army with the most affordable, most sustainable, lowest risk, least complex solution for FARA while meeting all the requirements,” Keith Flail, the company’s vice president for advanced vertical lift systems, said.
The design features a single main rotor helicopter in a four-blade configuration, a low-drag tandem cockpit fuselage and transportability in a C-17.
One of the major key technologies derived from the 525 program is high-speed rotor blades, but the 525 has five blades as opposed to the Invictus’ shorter four. Much of the manufacturing techniques to build the smaller blades will carry over from the 525 program as well.
The helicopter will be powered by the Army’s Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP) engine, which is being developed and built by General Electric.
Additionally, the aircraft has a supplemental power unit that engages with the drive system to provide additional horsepower “when required to give us that extra power and speed that we need,” Flail said.
Invictus has lift-sharing wings that will, once the aircraft reaches 180 knots, offload roughly 50 percent of the work to lift the aircraft, he added, and it has an active horizontal stabilizer at the tail.
The helicopter features a ducted/canted tail rotor as well. “By doing that, we get a couple of benefits both in high speed flight and, in hover, we get additional lift for the aircraft,” Flail said.
The design incorporates an integrated munitions launcher that keeps armaments inside the aircraft to eliminate drag in high speeds. The launcher can “actuate the weapons out” when an engagement is needed, Flail said. The landing gear is also retracted to eliminate drag, he added.
The aircraft is outfitted with a 20mm gun and has the ability to carry fires, rockets and air-launched effects.
“Everything we have done has been focused on how do you keep the lowest drag possible on the aircraft,” Flail said. “So we don’t have to add exotic solutions to the aircraft the meet the requirements to get the speeds that you need for the FARA program.”
Lockheed Martin is the mission systems integrator for the company’s V-280 Valor tiltrotor, which is its offering for the Army’s Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA), but Bell has partnered with Collins Aerospace for the FARA program.
“There’s several companies that are out there that we believe have modular open systems architecture solutions,” Flail said. “In all of those efforts and talking with colleagues, we believe Collins is the best partner for Bell as we execute the program. Collins Aerospace has been a great partner to the United States Army in the Special Operations world with Little Birds,” he noted, and understands this mission in particular. “We felt it was the best fit,” he said.
Bell is competing with AVX Aircraft Co. partnered with L-3 Communications Integrated Systems, Boeing, a Karem Aircraft-Northrop Grumman-Raytheon team and Lockheed Martin-owned Sikorsky.
The Army awarded each a design contract in April. Only two teams will move forward, at the end of the design phase, to build flyable prototypes of the future helicopter in a head-to-head competition.
AVX and L3 unveiled its design for FARA at the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual summit in Nashville, Tennessee, this spring. The single-engine design uses AVX’s compound coaxial and ducted fans technology.
Karem announced it would team with Northrop and Raytheon but details were scant on how the teaming arrangement would work or on what the design might be based.
Sikorsky’s offering will be based off of its X2 coaxial technology seen in its S-97 Raider and the Sikorsky-Boeing developed SB-1 Defiant, which are now both flying.
The Army continues to look for ways to accelerate FARA fielding and is on an ambitious schedule to get FARA prototypes flying by 2023. Bell said it is preparing to fly in 2022. A production decision could happen in 2028.
FARA is intended to fill a critical capability gap currently being filled by AH-64E Apache attack helicopters teamed with Shadow unmanned aircraft following the retirement of the Bell-manufactured OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters.
The service has tried and failed three times to fill the gap with an aircraft. Bell offered up a souped-up Kiowa during the last attempt to fill the gap in 2012.
This time the Army didn’t want to get locked into keeping inflexible requirements, but did request that aircraft should have a maximum 40-foot rotor diameter. The Army will consider speed, range and payload possibilities, but wants to encourage innovation by industry for designs that push the envelope and make FARA a true next-generation aircraft that can contribute to the fleet for the good part of a century.
“We certainly could have come up with other solutions, but to meet the requirements, and for this to be the knife fighter that they want it to be — to live in the dirt,” Flail said.
“We really wanted to focus on on that simplicity and really drive complexity and risk out of it as much as possible. You look at what we just accomplished in the [Joint Multi-Role] program, take at least a year off of that ... in terms of what we’re trying to do here with FARA," Flail said. "I think we’re very well positioned as a company to be able to execute that because of our cycle of learning from JMR. And this is an extremely fast pace that focusing on simplicity, keeping the complexity and the risk out of it as much as possible, is really important.”
The V-280 Valor was built as one of the two competitive demonstrators for the JMR technology development program designed to inform the Army’s FLRAA program. Valor has been flying for nearly two years and is preparing for its first autonomous flight in January 2020. The Sikorsky-Boeing Defiant flew for the first time earlier this year.
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.