Rotor Fatigue Life Prediction and Design for Revolutionary Vertical Lift Concepts

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Robinson, Joseph Nathaniel
Mavris, Dimitri N.
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Despite recent technological advancements, rotorcraft still lag behind their fixed-wing counterparts in the areas of flight safety and operating cost. Competition with fixed-wing aircraft is difficult for applications where vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) capabilities are not required. Both must be addressed to ensure the continued competitiveness of vertical lift aircraft, especially in the context of new military and civilian rotorcraft programs such as Future Vertical Lift and urban air mobility, which will require orders-of-magnitude improvements in reliability, availability, maintainability, and cost (RAM-C) metrics. Lifecycle costs and accident rates are strongly driven by scheduled replacement or failure of flight-critical components. Rotor blades are life-limited to ensure that they are replaced before fatigue damage exceeds critical levels, but purchasing new blades is extremely costly. Despite aggressive component replacement times, fatigue failure of rotor blades continues to account for a significant proportion of inflight accidents. Fatigue damage in rotorcraft is unavoidable due to the physics of rotary-wing flight, but new engineering solutions to improve fatigue life in the rotor system could improve rotorcraft operating costs and flight safety simultaneously. Existing rotorcraft design methods treat fatigue life as a consequence, rather than a driver, of design. A literature review of rotorcraft design and fatigue design methods is conducted to identify the relevant strengths and weaknesses of traditional processes. In rotorcraft design, physics-based rotor design frameworks are focused primarily on fundamental performance analysis and do not consider secondary characteristics such as reliability or fatigue life. There is a missing link between comprehensive rotor design frameworks and conceptual design tools that prevents physics-based assessment of RAM-C metrics in the early design stages. Traditional fatigue design methods, such as the safe life methodology, which applies the Miner's rule fatigue life prediction model to rotorcraft components, are hindered by a lack of physics-based capabilities in the early design stages. An accurate fatigue life quantification may not be available until the design is frozen and prototypes are flying. These methods are strongly dependent on extrapolations built on historical fatigue data, and make use of deterministic safety factors based on organizational experience to ensure fatigue reliability, which can lead to over-engineering or unreliable predictions when applied to revolutionary vertical lift aircraft. A new preliminary fatigue design methodology is designed to address these concerns. This methodology is based on the traditional safe life methodology, but replaces several key elements with modern tools, techniques, and models. Three research questions are proposed to investigate, refine, and validate different elements of the methodology. The first research question addresses the need to derive physics-based fatigue load spectra more rapidly than modern comprehensive analysis tools allow. The second investigates the application of different probabilistic reliability solution methods to the fatigue life substantiation problem. The third question tests the ability of the preliminary fatigue design methodology to evaluate the relative impact of common preliminary fatigue design variables on the probability of fatigue failure of a conceptual helicopter's rotor blade. Hypotheses are formulated in response to each research question, and a series of experiments are designed to test those hypotheses. In the first experiment, a multi-disciplinary analysis (MDA) environment combining the rotorcraft performance code NDARC, the comprehensive code RCAS, and the beam analysis program VABS, is developed to provide accurate physics-based predictions of rotor blade stress in arbitrary flight conditions. A conceptual single main rotor transport helicopter based on the UH-60A Black Hawk is implemented within the MDA to serve as a test case. To account for the computational expense of the MDA, surrogate modeling techniques, such as response surface equations, artificial neural networks, and Gaussian process models are used to approximate the stress response across the flight envelope of the transport helicopter. The predictive power and learning rates of various surrogate modeling techniques are compared to determine which is the most suitable for predicting fatigue stress. Ultimately, shallow artificial neural networks are found the provide the best compromise between accuracy, training expense, and uncertainty quantification capabilities. Next, structural reliability solution methods are investigated as a means to produce high-reliability fatigue life estimates without requiring deterministic safety factors. The Miner's sum fatigue life prediction model is reformulated as a structural reliability problem. Analytical solutions (FORM and SORM), sampling solutions (Monte Carlo, quasi-Monte Carlo, Latin hypercube sampling, and directional simulation), and hybrid solutions importance sampling) are compared using a notional fatigue life problem. These results are validated using a realistic helicopter fatigue life problem \jnr{which incorporates the fatigue stress surrogate model and is based on a probabilistic definition of the mission spectrum to account for fleet-wide usage variations. Monte Carlo simulation is found to provide the best performance and accuracy when compared to the exact solution. Finally, the capabilities of the preliminary fatigue design methodology are demonstrated using a series of hypothetical fatigue design exercises. First, the methodology is used to predict the impact of rotor blade box spar web thickness on probability of fatigue failure. Modest increases in web thickness are found to reduce probability of failure, but larger increases cause structural instability of the rotor blade in certain flight regimes which increases the fatigue damage rate. Next, a similar study tests the impact of tail rotor cant angle. Positive tail rotor cant is found to improve fatigue life in cases where the center of gravity (CG) of the vehicle is strongly biased towards the tail, but is detrimental if the CG is closer to the main rotor hub station line. Last, the effect of design mission requirements like rate of climb and cruising airspeed is studied. The methodology is not sensitive enough to predict the subtle impact of changes to rate of climb, but does prove that a slower cruising airspeed will decrease probability of fatigue failure of the main rotor blade. The methodology is proven to be capable of quantifying the influence of \jnr{rotor blade design variables, vehicle layout and configuration, and certain design mission requirements}, paving the way for implementation in a rotorcraft design framework. This thesis ends with suggestions for future work to address the most significant limitations of this research, as well as descriptions of the tasks required to apply the methodology to conventional rotorcraft or conceptual revolutionary vertical lift aircraft.
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