Pushing the Envelope: Eurocopter X3 and X4

A pair of radical designs bring innovation to a whole new level.

Eurocopter X3

Eurocopter X3

Eurocopter X3

Looking ahead at the future of rotorcraft design, Eurocopter has launched two concurrent research and development programs that are aimed at producing the company’s next generation of civil and military helicopters. To say these designs are extreme in appearance and operation is an understatement. Quite simply, nothing like the Eurocopter X3 and X4 has ever taken flight.

The X4 is part of the major innovation and fleet renewal program to replace the Eurocopter EC 155 Dauphin, which has been a top seller in the medium-lift helicopter category since its introduction 1975. The X4 is an extremely ambitious design, particularly in terms of the technology, performance, operating costs, environmental impact targets and even the overall way the pilot will control the helicopter.

Eurocopter says the X4 will be introduced to the market in a two-step approach: The “initial configuration” will be certified in 2016 with the first delivery scheduled for 2017, while the “final configuration” will be delivered in 2020. What are the differences between the two? The initial configuration will include pretty much all of the innovations Eurocopter is developing for the airframe, engine, systems and rotors. The final configuration will go a step further by introducing a newly redesigned cockpit that will push the boundaries of conventional design. Eurocopter isn’t saying what that means, exactly, but CEO Lutz Bertling said recently that the X4’s configuration will “dramatically transform” the traditional configuration of a helicopter. “Sitting in the X4, one thing will immediately become evident,” he said. “The cockpit as we know it today will not be there.”

Eurocopter says the X4 will be on average 20 percent more fuel efficient per passenger and offer a sound reduction of 50 percent compared to the current helicopters. Those are compelling features that should translate to strong sales for Eurocopter out of the gate.

If the X4 is innovative, Eurocopter’s X3 technology demonstrator is downright radical, with a conventional main rotor system flanked by a pair of forward-facing turboprop engines. The X3 demonstrator performed its first demo flight in September 2010, and then in May 2011 it exceeded its original speed target of 220 knots by attaining an incredible 232 knots in level, stable flight.

In flight testing the X3 demonstrator, Eurocopter hopes to show that the concept can offer the high-speed cruise efficiency of a turboprop at a more affordable cost – that means a 50 percent increase in performance with only a 25 percent increase in cost.