|Technicians work on the AW609 assembly line in Italy. Photo courtesy of AgustaWestland|
Why not use the AW101 “as an optionally piloted vehicle?” asked AgustaWestland’s chief executive officer, Daniele Romiti. We were beginning a discussion of his company’s attitude to rotary unmanned aerial systems and optionally piloted vehicles at the company’s headquarters in Vergiate, Italy.
After the initial shock of the statement and the mental image of unmanned AW101s flying around the Afghan battlefield wore off, further clarification made it not only logical but an obvious progression for the industry – and this company – to make. It has access to its own avionics and automatic flight control system (AFCS) and can call on the backing of group company Selex ES with its wealth of UAV experience.
The question tied into something that George Barton, vice president for business development at Lockheed Martin, told me back at the Dubai Airshow in November 2013. Lockheed Martin provides the mission management systems and flight control for the Kaman K-Max that has been continually trialed by the U.S. Marines in Afghanistan over the last few years. In Dubai he asserted that the technology was far from being K-Max specific and that it could be applied to different aerial platforms.
One of AgustaWestland’s joint venture companies, Sistemi Dinamici, has also developed its own unmanned platform, the Hero UAV. “We already have a solution up to 200 kg through a company that we partially own, so we were not taking this new design inside our company but will leave it as part of our portfolio,” Romiti noted.
So AgustaWestland is more focused on UAVs than might be apparent at first glance. In 2012 another of its companies, PZL-Aswidnik SA, demonstrated a prototype SW-4 RUAS/OPH (Solo) single engine rotorcraft unmanned aerial system/optionally piloted helicopter. This is now the vehicle being used to ascertain the UK’s Royal Naval requirement for a UAS.
“We are now also looking into a heavier solution UAV which will have remarkable performances,” stated Romiti. The OPV solution is an option that AgustaWestland is studying closely which also reads across into its developing strategy of creating a range of “dual use” platforms that have both civil and military value. Romiti revealed that the OPV option has been placed into the company’s technology path for consideration in future developments. “We were looking at an application for the AW101 … the basic materials are already there in terms of the full autopilot; so it becomes a matter of datalinking.” He said that the certain types of mission did exist where there were opportunities such as long and/or tiring surveillance flights and night flights for cargo. “That could be done by an OPV,” he suggested. “In my opinion OPVs could be more effective on a large aircraft. And the combination of manned-unmanned [in one helicopter] could be more attractive than having two separate platforms.”
The emergence of UAVs in the commercial marketplace is no threat to the helicopter markets for the time being, stated Roberto Garavaglia, senior vice president strategy and business development. He makes an important point: “Generally UAV developers have not been the traditional manned fixed wing manufacturers, such as General Atomics [Predator and Grey Eagle as examples]. We are watching those who specialize in automation.” He added that once there is no need for a person onboard, then the size of the UAV is open for redefinition depending on the mission.
“Micro UAVs are very sophisticated pieces of engineering,” he noted, but believes that the helicopter can find its place as the core around which any mission system is developed.
“We do not believe that rotary will take the core of unmanned operations. The use of energy is more efficient on a fixed-wing but there are many reasons why you need to hover,” he said.
|AgustaWestland President & CEO Daniele Romiti. Photo courtesy AgustaWestland|
In a world of declining military markets, how does a company such as AgustaWestland respond? Self-financing the design and production of new aircraft is out of the question without government customer requirements and financial backing, so how do you “hedge your bets” that you will have something to offer when the call comes?
Romiti is putting his faith into dual-use platforms, in a way that the company has already demonstrated with the AW139M that is now is use with the Italian Air Force, the Irish Air Corps and Qatari Air Force. He says that AgustaWestland’s civilian family of helicopters concept (AW139, AW169, AW189) can also be translated into the military. A walk around the Vergiate plant’s various buildings shows a mix of AW139s, both civil and military, in assembly and completion. Although the pulse assembly line may have different helicopter models on the line, the production process is synchronized so that any modification is done on the pulse line at the appropriate point, such as an alternate undercarriage and mission system.
The idea of dual-use was started with the announcement of the AW149 at Farnborough Airshow in 2006. It is not just about expanding the family range of helicopters in both sectors, it also reaches into training and support and the savings to the military that such a policy can offer. There will be two variants of the AW149, one for battlefield utility and one for maritime use including an anti-submarine warfare capability. Romiti explained: “The maritime version will take dipping sonar and sonar buoy dispensers. Also the composite structure addresses corrosion issues. There can be folding blades and folding tail but we are not thinking about an automatic folding system as it becomes more complex and expensive. And we certainly don’t want to enter into the garden of the NH-90; we want to stay at a price level to offer differentiating solutions. After all, you don’t face an extreme environment every day.”
But the basic tenet behind making a dual system real is starting early enough in the design principles to be effective in production and delivery, adds Romiti. The commonality that is inherent in the AgustaWestland family approach will be as attractive to military buyers as civil operators is the belief. It is about general architecture that can allow for specific components. “I cannot think of a new design without taking all the elements of this family concept. Unless a specific requirement will come – but I am not seeing any specific requirements at the moment.”
A “clear example” of this is the SAR helicopters for the UK. “Starting from the basic design where optimizing the internal space was required, there is the option to accommodation different layouts and flexibility is a key of dual use.” But from utility to medevac, there is a demonstrated need where military users want to be able to transform the aircraft quickly. “Whenever you need you take out seats and equip for another mission all of the interfaces need to already exist inside the helicopter.”
Don’t count AgustaWestland out of the U.S. Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program. Romiti says that Bell Helicopter’s involvement in the Joint Multi Role (JMR) technology demonstrator gave the company encouragement that they had “the right solution” with the AW609. “For us it was a big challenge to take a new approach in the vertical lift solution with tiltrotor technology,” he admits, in spite of the joint program with Bell that began in September 1998. By the end of November 2011, AgustaWestland had acquired full ownership the program, previously known as the Bell/Agusta BA609.
“The AW609 that was bought from Bell is no longer the same aircraft. We have now incorporated our ‘family elements’ principles into the design, including avionics, and we will grow it with those principles,” said Romiti.
The third prototype aircraft is still a certification aircraft but it has new systems architecture and incorporates all the improvements that the AW609 team has made over the two years working on the aircraft. The two initial prototypes were a combination of old technology mixed with elements of AgustaWestland’s new designs. “We will see if we build a fourth, the design engineering teams are pushing me but I am resisting,” said Romiti with a smile. There is still a requirement to conduct the de-icing tests and the suggestion is that a fourth aircraft maybe needed to do those in tandem with the main certification program being conducted by the third aircraft.
The AW609 team now numbers more than 100 personnel and is still growing. Clive Scott, AW609 program manager said that the testing program “would hit 1,000 flight hours this year” and had already passed over 900 hours at the start of February [at the beginning of February 2012 the total stood at around 650 registered since its first flight of March 2003].
According to Scott, the all-composite airframe is lighter, new systems such as Rockwell Collins Pro Line Fusion avionics have been integrated and a 10 percent drag reduction has been achieved in a number of ways, including replacing the tail cone and replacing the exhaust which – through analysis – was found to create an exhaust plume drag. The team also added smaller measures such as “eyebrows” below the spinner cone to improve airflow over the blades. Scott says that a combination of wind tunnel testing with positive results from computational fluid dynamic (CFD) modeling pointed the way toward areas where improvements could be made.
In terms of the re-emergence of the AW609 in the FVL competition, Romiti would only reveal that, “we had a discussion with some friends as to why we are not taking part in this program.” The reason being that AgustaWestland had too much “on its plate” at the time – “too many products along the development path so we could not add a new one.” He admits that there could be partnering opportunities in the future, potentially as a logistics partner or even in terms of work-share if a tiltrotor design was ultimately successful.
|AW139 assembly line in Italy. Photo courtesy AgustaWestland|
But as a civil product the market currently does not yet perceive “all the benefits of the tiltrotor solution.” Civil infrastructure needs to change, that much is already accepted, However, Romiti observes that with a footprint that is equivalent to a Sikorsky S-76, the AW609 can already be accommodated into existing air transport systems.
“We are having discussions with the authorities [in Italy] because the current rules of navigation and approach negatively affect the benefits of a tiltrotor. We do not want to queue into an ATC zone in the same way as an airplane. This is part of our discussion.”
“The certification process has not been easy as we having to refer to fixed wing and helicopter requirements. The combination of the two has been very challenging,” he admits.
Garavaglia said that for the last couple of years the company has not pushed for new orders (which stood at around 70 in 2012) until it is satisfied with a final set of specifications and a final configuration before proceeding. “We are working on the short takeoff/landing capability; why not work on having an extra 100 lbs on takeoff if it is possible?” This drive to explore all the parameters of the aircraft’s envelope is evident when talking to anyone connected to the program.
Although certification is still around three years away in 2017, the momentum has been growing regarding the aircraft’s future potential. “From this month we are going to start all the certification activities. It is no longer about testing the architecture – that is now fixed,” said Romiti.
SW4 Solo UAS, or unmanned aircraft system. Photo courtesy AgustaWestland
AgustaWestland is about to become more focused than ever on customer satisfaction. Over the next 12 months its Step Change Program will aim to improve not only its physical dealings with its customers, but is aimed at improve innovation, investing in technology and delivering better value for money.
From a new completions center with timed responses to solving customer’s logistical needs, to lean engineering, a business excellence program that reaches across sales and more closely monitors the fluctuations of the market – all will be headed by senior vice presidents.
Romiti was eager to see this attention to customer needs addressed quickly and effectively: “I have personally fixed windows of timing during which a customer has to get the answer from the company. If we exceed this length the question moves up to his boss. This continues to happen if the time limit is reached.”
Next Issue (April 2014): Think Customer continued; the AW139 effect; world markets reviewed; and the value of training with technology.