If Russian Helicopters has its way, they will be producing upwards of 700 light helicopters annually by 2030. The helicopters will be single, light aircraft made primarily of composite materials. In order to demonstrate what they believe will be the future of 2-ton helos, they are planning to build a prototype and have it ready for release by sometime late next year.
News sources say the VRT500 will be a five-seat helicopter with a coaxial single engine, a maximum payload capacity of 1,600 pounds, a 20,000-foot service ceiling, and a top cruising speed of 124 kn. Russian Helicopters expects the VRT500 to compete directly with the Bell 505 and Robinson R66.
The VRT500’s three-blade main rotor will be constructed with shaped carbon fiber blades to reduce noise. The body of the aircraft will also be made extensively from composites. The aircraft will include glass panel avionics and a turboshaft engine that will eventually be produced by a Western vendor.
Investing in a Prototype
Given the incredibly high cost of producing cutting-edge aircraft, you might wonder why Russian Helicopters is willing to put millions into developing a prototype of a vehicle whose specifications they have seemingly already settled on. Rock West Composites, a Utah company that works with clients to design and build composite prototypes, offers an explanation.
According to Rock West, prototypes serve a lot of different purposes. Among them is the ability to learn the best ways to mass produce as you are building the prototype. As expensive as prototyping might be, manufacturers have to figure out cost-effective production methods before a prototype hits the production stage. Prototyping reveals exactly what will go into the production process, making it easier to come up with cost-effective solutions.
Rock West also says that prototyping is a good way to uncover design flaws. When you are working with composites, this is essential. A manufacturer doesn’t want to begin mass producing a new product only to find out months later that a design flaw threatens to end production. They want to get all those design flaws out of the way before costly production begins in earnest.
Good Prototypes Pay for Themselves
A good prototype will eventually pay for itself, which is just what Russian Helicopters is banking on. Every dollar they sink into the VRT500 prototype they expect to recoup when the helicopter finally goes into production. It may take a while for the program to be profitable, but they are confident it will be.
If the VRT500 performs as expected, Russian Helicopters believes they can capture upwards of 15% of the total 2-ton market. They believe they will be able to sell plenty of units in Latin America and the Caribbean; perhaps 30% of their sales in those regions. They also plan to introduce the helicopter to the U.S. and European markets. They will need EASA and FAA certification to do so.
Rock West Composites says that building a prototype will be instrumental to getting the required certifications. Once the prototype is ready to go, it will be put through a battery of tests aimed at satisfying the various regulatory agencies they will have to work with. All of the testing data will be submitted to regulators who will eventually decide the VRT500’s fate. Successful certification will be the final step toward mass production.
There is a lot that goes into producing a new aircraft. And in the race to build bigger, lighter aircraft using composite materials, prototypes are a big part of the process. Just ask Russian Helicopters. They know how it all works.