In an effort to protect pilots and passengers involved in helicopter accidents, NASA engineer Sotiris Kellas developed a high-tech honeycomb airbag known as a “deployable energy absorber.” The device is made of Kevlar and has a unique flexible hinge design that lets the honeycomb be packaged tight and remain flat until deployed. Kellas initially came up with the idea as a way to cushion the next generation of astronaut-carrying space capsules, but soon realized it had many other possible applications.
NASA tested the system using a 240-foot tall structure (once used to teach astronauts how to land on the moon) at the agency’s Langley Research Center. NASA engineers dropped a MD-500 helicopter, donated by the U.S. Army, from a height of 35 feet to see whether its deployable energy absorber could handle the impact. The test helicopter hit the ground at about 54 mph and at a 33-degree angle. Engineers considered that speed and angle to represent a severe helicopter crash. The helicopter was equipped with instruments that collected 160 channels of data.
On impact the helicopter’s skid landing gear bent outward, but the airbag attached to the undercarriage prevented the rotorcraft’s fuselage from touching the ground. The four crash test dummies inside the helicopter showed minor impact damage. One dummy, provided by Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, had a special torso equipped with simulated internal organs. Preliminary test results revealed protective benefits to pilots and passengers, allowing NASA to continue testing the concept.