Eurocopter, part of the EADS family, is setting up a manufacturing center in Spain that will provide helicopter models such as Tigers and EC135s for the Spanish army. "Between the army and the civil protection unit, we see a big potential market in Spain," says Jesus Ruiz, spokesperson for Eurocopter-Espana. Ruiz says that research at the moment remains in the field of industrial transfer, building up a manufacturing base. But research facilities will soon investigate the possibility of using a greater percentage of carbon fiber composites in helicopters.
Carbon fiber parts for these aircraft have also figured prominently in Aernnova's work; the company has designed and provided structural parts in both metal and composites to American-based helicopter leader Sikorsky. Aernnova is also part of a European initiative examining ways to reduce helicopter weight, fuel use, noise, and emissions.
The growing focus on helicopters has prompted some companies and research institutions to pursue initiatives in this field as well. SENER is beginning to investigate methods of reducing helicopter noise. "Helicopter design and research is becoming more of a target for us as the Spanish industry is developing a great deal in this area, particularly with the new Eurocopter production center," says aerospace director Quintana.
At the Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Barcelona (the Catalan acronym is UPC), a group of researchers is working to increase the autonomy of unmanned helicopters, a type of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). "There are UAVs all over the world, but helicopters are a very difficult aerodynamic system, much more difficult to drive and control than other aircraft," says Ricardo Sánchez-Pena, who is in charge of the project.
Sánchez-Pena says that his group is trying to add autonomous behavior through an artificial vision system and increased autonomy in the control systems. Applications could include infrared sensors that would detect forest fires or electrical fires and then call for human assistance.
The hardware for this type of activity already exists— sensors, navigation systems— so the challenge today lies in the software: "integrating navigation with other sensors, and providing greater control and autonomy," says Sánchez-Pena. "If you want to gain in precision, there are mathematical problems to solve. The challenge today is in the area of the control system and artificial vision."