Sometime in 2017, flight-testing should begin on a 300-kilogram twin-rotor helicopter – said by its Quebec-based developer, Laflamme Aero, to be the biggest unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in Canada and one of the largest civil UAVs to be commercialized in the world.
The engineering company, located in St-Joseph-de-Coleraine, 250 kilometres east of Montreal, is leading the $2.3-million project, for which the Consortium for Aerospace Research and Innovation in Canada (CARIC) is contributing half. Its partners in the endeavour are NGC International, Roy Aircraft & Avionic Simulation and Sinters America.
NGC International is responsible for the aircraft guidance navigation and control system, Roy Aircraft & Avionic Simulation for the high-definition simulator and ground control station, and Sinters America for a specialized on-board computer.
Laflamme Aero had already been working on the UAV, named LX300, for two years before it publicly announced the program. Many mission purposes have been worked out and its technical specifications have been set. Many of the manufacturing techniques and technologies are already well developed and understood.
Although this is the company’s first UAV venture, the owners of Laflamme Aero, David and Enrick Laflamme, have a lot of experience with twin-rotor helicopter development. Their father, Réjean Laflamme, who is a machinist by trade, purchased and restored an Air & Space 18-A gyrocopter and a McCulloch Super J-2 gyrocopter in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He also spent 20 years developing two prototypes of a twin-rotor helicopter for the home kit market.
David and Enrick grew up in this engineering bath, and went on to earn bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering (Enrick with a concentration in aviation) from the École de Technologie Supérieure in Montreal. They formed Laflamme Aero, with a subsidiary company, Laflamme Engineering, in 2004. They sell their expertise in certified equipment and aerospace tooling to industrial and aerospace clients; the latter include Messier-Bugatti-Dowty, CAE, Mecachrome Canada and Avior.
“We were always in this environment. I started building parts for [Réjean’s] helicopters, working with him, at a very young age. Enrick learned to draw helicopter parts with the very first computer-drawing program. I was building helicopter composite blades when I was 13. It was really crazy. We saw a lot of successes and failures,” explains David, president of Laflamme Engineering.
So, for instance, the Laflamme’s have a sophisticated understanding of the helicopter blade manufacturing process. “We have been working on this technique for the past 15 years. We have always had good manufacturing techniques for the blades,” explains Enrick, president of Laflamme Aero.
David adds, “The blade is a really complex part, but because of our expertise, this is a place where we can succeed. It is one of our biggest competitive advantages – a blade similar to a certified blade, but at low cost. We use the same type of fibres that are used with certified planes, but with innovative processes.”
Laflamme Aero will fabricate the LX300 and its mechanical components. “We will do the manufacturing: blades, fuselage, parts, and final assembly. We may use subcontractors for machining. We will control all of the design and manufacturing processes of the mechanical processes,” says Enrick.
Laflamme Aero plans to build a production facility for the LX300 at the Thetford Mines Airport.
The LX300 design, engine and size offers several advantages, according to Enrick. First, the 100-horsepower engine, which uses mogas (automobile gasoline) will have a time between overhaul (TBO) of 2,000 hours, compared to about 200 hours TBO for competitor engines.
The twin-rotor design and aerodynamics is well suited to the classes of mission profiles that the company is targeting: agricultural spraying, naval operations, first responder support, and energy and mining industries.
The twin-rotor configuration is ideal for the 90-kilogram payload or 100 kg of fuel that the LX300 will be capable of carrying, Enrick says. “You don’t have to worry about unmatched payload configurations and fuel load. Just adjust the power with both rotors.”
Too, he adds, “It is a robust design, and we expect it to be a helicopter with less vibration than the competition.”
Laflamme Aero has already patented a quick-attach, four cubic-foot cargo carrying system, called M-BARK that fits under the belly of the LX300, which has an airframe length of 2.9 metres. (The total cargo capacity of the LX300 is seven cubic feet.) Mechanically, a twin-rotor design is simpler, Enrick says. “The tandem rotor is a bit less complex, because we use the same technology for the front and rear rotor. We don’t have to design a separate tail rotor.”
Because Laflamme Aero is using composite materials for the LX300 fuselage, the assembled aircraft will have a dry weight of 190 kg. The maximum takeoff weight will be 300 kg., the maximum speed 125 knots, and the cruise speed 65kt. Communication systems of varying power will be available to match with mission profiles; e.g., local or long-range activities. The LX300 will accept visible spectrum and thermal-imaging cameras and a variety of other sensing equipment, such as LIDAR and gradiometers.
Navigation and flight will be facilitated with a built-in GPS/INS navigation system, an autonomous takeoff and landing system and autopilot, and an obstacle-detection system.
Currently, according to Enrick, UAV design is a free-for-all. But this will change, he predicts. “We don’t need a good crystal ball to see that. For an aircraft of 300 kilograms, from our point of view, you will need to meet the same level of safety as manned helicopters. The way to operate now in Canada and the United States is to have exemptions. But we think that in maybe two to three years we will have regulations. For us it will be a very good selling point to be very close to these regulations.
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