The exclusive story of AgustaWestland’s all-electric “technology incubator.”
By Mike Hirschberg, Executive Director
AgustaWestland stunned the world on March 4, 2013 when it announced at Heli-Expo that it had secretly flown an unconventional technology demonstrator aircraft, codenamed “Project Zero,” that looks unlike any aircraft before. The long list of disruptive innovations demonstrated and pioneered by Project Zero were just as stunning as the aircraft itself.
A swashplateless, all-electric-powered, hybrid tiltrotor/fan-in-wing “technology incubator,” as AgustaWestland calls it, Project Zero “employs no hydraulics, doesn’t burn fossil fuel and generates zero emissions.” The fact that Project Zero made its first flight just six months after design kick-off is even more impressive.
In the press release, Daniele Romiti, AgustaWestland’s CEO, said “The ‘Project Zero’ technology demonstrator program brings together many of the advanced technologies AgustaWestland has been researching in recent years and demonstrates our strong technological base from which we will develop new products to meet the needs of our customers in the future. We strongly believe in the tilt rotor concept as the future of high speed rotorcraft flight as it offers much greater speed and range than compound helicopter technology.”
AgustaWestland Vice President for Research & Technology Dr. James Wang, provided the first public details in an exclusive interview with Vertiflite.
An Aircraft Like No Other
Project Zero was launched to showcase as many innovations as possible on a single technology demonstrator platform. Wang conceived of the concept and completed initial sizing in 2010. The project was approved by AgustaWestland management and a small team was put together in December 2010 to execute the project.
The unmanned demonstrator made its first tethered flight in June 2011 at AgustaWestland’s Cascina Costa, Italy facility. The code name came from the recognition that this was a unique internal project like nothing the company had ever done before: it was starting fresh from zero. AgustaWestland’s Advanced Concepts Group conducted model testing within those first six months. Several 1/10th-scale models were flown to test the flight envelope extremes of this unusual shape.
The aircraft was flown in secured areas several times in 2011 and 2012, including flights with and without the ducted shrouds around its tilting rotors and with a second set of more advanced rotor blades with a non-linear twist and custom airfoils. Flight testing also supported fine-tuning the electric propulsion system to extract 30% more power.
The project was purposely set at an extremely fast pace, and with a nearly “impossible” schedule to challenge the team. Significant amounts of computational fluid dynamics (CFD) cases and finite element modeling (FEM) were run, as well as extensive rotor dynamics calculations and analysis.
The full-size demonstrator’s rotors are driven by advanced electric motors powered by rechargeable batteries. (The Project Zero testbed is also slated to test future hybrid solutions, such as a diesel engine to drive a generator.) The aircraft’s flight control systems, nacelle tilting mechanism, and landing gear all use electromechanical actuators (EMAs), eliminating any hydraulics onboard.
During cruise, the wings provide most of the lift, with the blended fuselage and shrouds around the rotors also making contributions. Elevons provide pitch and roll control in forward flight, while the winglets and short V-tail provide lateral/directional stability. The aircraft is designed with detachable outer wings for short-range missions that would be performed primarily in helicopter mode.
The all-electric approach eliminates the complex and heavy transmission system required by conventional rotorcraft, and has very low acoustic and thermal signatures in flight. The motors also do not require oxygen, which would permit the aircraft to fly at extremely high altitudes or in heavily polluted conditions, such as volcanic eruptions or other toxic environments. The demonstrator’s batteries can be recharged on the ground by tilting the rotors into the wind to act as turbines.
Wang says, “Electric technologies are speeding ahead at a very fast pace. The energy and power densities of advanced batteries are moving in leaps and bounds. The company and its partners developed the electric motors, inverter and electrical management system specifically for the aircraft. Rather than waiting for the battery to become even better, then working on electric aircraft technology, the team has positioned itself to be ready for the next generation of batteries. The aircraft was also designed to accept different energy sources for its electric motors, such as a hybrid diesel electric generator, and the work has already been started.”
The aircraft incorporates more than 80% composites, including 100% of the skins, rotor blades, shroud and spokes. The structure is nearly all aluminum and carbon – very little steel was used. Rotor grips are titanium. Wang notes that it was an extremely fast pace research project, with AgustaWestland looking for materials that would result in the fastest speed in getting the aircraft built, at an acceptable weight and reasonable cost. Therefore, as a “technology incubator,” it is a long way from being optimized for production.
AgustaWestland declined to provide any physical dimensions or performance details on the aircraft, but stated that it had tiltrotor-like disk loading and would achieve tiltrotor-type speeds with a suitable powerplant. The European Union patent, EP2551190(A1), filed July 29, 2011 and granted January 30, 2013, states the aircraft, referred to as a “Convertiplane,” would have “a cruising speed of roughly 500 km/h [270 kt] … and a typical cruising height of 7500 metres [25,000 ft], which is roughly twice that of a helicopter, and enables it to fly above most cloud formations and atmospheric disturbance.”
Patents (with Wang as the inventor) were also granted in parallel in the United States, US2013026303 (A1); Korea, KR20130014450 (A); Japan, JP2013032147 (A), and China, CN102897317 (A). It appears that the patents’ approval and publication just a few weeks before Heli-Expo were factors in the company’s decision to announce the project. AgustaWestland has submitted many other patent applications.
Based on the available public domain photos, it appears to the author the rotor is approximately 10 ft (3 m) in diameter and the wingspan about 43 ft (13 m), which would make the length about 26 ft (8 m).
AgustaWestland used a “Skunk Works” type philosophy in getting the team to work together at peak efficiency. “The soft benefits [management] were as great as or greater than the technical achievements,” Wang states. The handpicked team was comprised mostly of “young, passionate engineers.” They all believed it could be done. “They didn’t bring any prejudices or baggage . . . . We never had a doubt for one second that this thing was going to fly.” This core team was located at AgustaWestland’s headquarters site at Cascina Costa near Milan. The company was also able to put together a group of external risk-sharing partners that contributed people, hardware and software.
“This group lives to dream, and if it can be dreamed, it can be built. The team purposely chose not to just build an electric-powered conventional airplane or helicopter. They went all out and built a twin-rotor electric tiltrotor with no transmission or swashplates,” Wang states. “Anything that is borderline impossible, we want to do.”
This was a new way of doing business – and a new attitude – for the company, Wang says. With the AW169 showing that an aircraft could be developed in less than four years, AgustaWestland management challenged the team to complete Project Zero in a single year, including all initial flight testing.
The project was also unique in its collaboration: four Finmeccanica companies – AgustaWestland, Selex ES, Ansaldo Breda and Ansaldo Energia – working together and with a team of different industry sectors across three continents. With engineers from Italy, the U.K., the U.S. and Japan, the team worked almost continuously 24 hours a day for 7 days a week for six months. Wang states, “Our partners all worked with great enthusiasm under the leadership of AgustaWestland R&T Advanced Concepts Group to bring this revolutionary concept to life. This is the first time multiple subsidiaries in the Finmeccanica Group collaborated with so many innovative companies, outside of the traditional aerospace industry, in one advanced demonstrator program.”
The partners are:
- Stile Bertone (Italy): in conjunction with AgustaWestland, developed Project Zero’s styling and aerodynamically unique configuration. Stile Bertone is an admired designer of supercars.
- Lola Composite (U.K.): produced the entire aircraft exterior surface, made of carbon graphite.
- Sistemi Dinamici (Italy): worked closely with the Advanced Concepts Group on flight control system and rotor design. Sistemi Dinamici is a high-technology engineering company jointly owned by AgustaWestland and IDS of Pisa, Italy.
- Selex ES (Italy): contributed the High- Integrity Flight Control Computer and Actuator Control Unit.
- Wind River (Italy subsidiary): provided software to drive the flight control computer, and also provided software consultation.
- Ansaldo Breda (Italy): drew on its expertise in designing and building high-speed electric trains to design and produce the custom electric motor inverter and motor control algorithm.
- Ansaldo Energia (Italy): providing expert consultation on the alternative hybrid electric-diesel solution. The company specializes in manufacturing megawatt-class power generators.
- Lucchi R. Elettromeccanica (Italy): custom- designed and built the axial flux permanent magnet electric motors.
- Rotor Systems Research, LLC (U.S.): in conjunction with AgustaWestland, designed the aerodynamic properties of the rotor blades. Prof. Gordon Leishman is the principal of Rotor Systems Research.
- UCHIDA Ltd. (Japan): manufactured the composite structure for the blades, shrouds and spokes that were designed by the Advanced Concepts Group and AgustaWestland Japan Asia Technology Center.
- Microtecnica (Italy): developed the high-bandwidth EMAs for the swashplateless individual blade control system. Microtecnica is now part of UT Aerospace.
- Oral Engineering (Italy): provided rapid computer numerical control (CNC) machining for the rotor and drive system and is developing an efficient diesel engine for the alternative electric-hybrid propulsion solution.
- MB Motorsport (Italy): developed the motor cooling system, based on its work on racing cars and motorbikes.
- Aerosviluppi (Italy): constructed the wiring harness.
- Marc-Ingegno (Italy): customized the retractable landing gear, based on its work on ultralight aircraft.
There were no more than two dozen full-time engineers – including AgustaWestland’s partners. Wang says. We “locked them up in one room” with emphasis on team bonding and improving communication. The team was comprised of one specialist in each area. There was no waiting for responses by email or playing phone tag, he notes. Just walk five feet to talk to someone else. This permitted Project Zero to be kept absolutely quiet.
Wang says, “Everything worked – the whole design – the first try.” The aircraft didn’t require any redesign, rework or other changes. “It takes good intuition, experience, common sense and a strong desire to make it work.”
The Future of Zero
Many research programs are conducted with nothing tangible resulting at the end, Wang says, so the decision was made that it “must fly and must be full size.” AgustaWestland is now “digesting what we have learned, how to put technology into our existing products as well as new products.”
Wang emphasizes that the fly-by-wire Project Zero itself “is not a product.” The company is looking for technology spinoffs to its helicopter product line. “What is the fastest way to recover the economic investment?” The technologies developed by each partner are being fed into their various industrial sectors to bring value to each company.
In addition, the Advanced Concepts Group is continuing its work on the hybrid diesel propulsion system. AgustaWestland has been working on this for two years now, and is also considering fuel cells and other approaches.
Meanwhile, AgustaWestland is moving forward with development of the AW609 civil tiltrotor following its full acquisition in 2011 of the program from Bell Helicopter, its partner in what had been called the BA609. It is progressing towards its goal of achieving U.S. FAA certification of the civil tiltrotor in 2016 and plans to begin deliveries immediately afterwards. It has established the subsidiary AgustaWestland Tilt Rotor Company at a development site in Arlington, Texas to pursue flight testing of the first prototype and FAA certification.
With the leadership in developing the world’s first civil tiltrotor, a novel technology testbed and a new attitude for doing business, Project Zero is perhaps only a glimpse of AgustaWestland’s continued drive for innovation in vertical flight.