Oxfordshire research project results could extend life of helicopter rotor blades

Simone at Engineer at Airbus

The results of a four-year, £2 million research project undertaken by Oxford Airport-based Airbus Helicopters, could help save substantial sums on the future maintenance of helicopter rotor blades.

The BladeSense project, a £2 million programme supported with a £1 million grant from Innovate UK, via the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), examined the use of novel optical fibre sensors, measuring strain and shape, to monitor blade behaviour in real-time.

Airbus UK is now exploring future activities following the four-year research project that has shown strong potential for advancing the measurement of helicopter rotor blades deformation in the rotating frame.

BladeSense trial Steve Hampson[4]It could substantially save on lifecycle costs through continuous in-flight data collection. This will not only open up new pathways for rotor blade performance monitoring, but also provide blade usage data that is currently impossible to obtain in operational environments.

The research was a collaboration between Airbus Helicopters UK, the Dynamics, Simulation and Control group and The Centre for Engineering Photonics at Cranfield University. Simone Weber, Technology Integration Manager at Airbus Helicopters in the UK was embedded at Cranfield University. Devon-based Helitune provided the on-board vehicle monitoring unit, and fluid engineering specialists BHR Group (UK) of Cranfield supplied the mathematical model predicting the mechanical loads.

Future test scenarios under examination envisage flight-testing of the system and investigation of the exploitation of the concept in the helicopter design phase.

Head of Design and Customisation at Airbus Helicopters in the UK, Richard Atack, said: “We’ve made real progress in an advanced field of work with the potential to bring important benefits in terms of performance monitoring and environmental impact. And we’ve done that by capitalising on people, skills and technical know-how right here in the UK at Airbus and with our partners. Now we are very interested to see what we can do next to advance our capabilities even further.“

Professor Ralph Tatam, Head of the Centre for Engineering Photonics at Cranfield University said: “This was a fantastic team effort from all the partners to demonstrate that the novel interferometric fibre optic shape measurement, pioneered at Cranfield, works in this challenging environment. This opens the way for this technology to be applied across a range of sectors including aerospace, energy, transport and healthcare”.

Airbus is a global leader in aeronautics, space and related services. In 2019, it generated revenues of €70 billion and employed a workforce of around 135,000.