Much of the aviation press is focusing these days on electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft and their potential for the evolving advanced air mobility (AAM) sector. Gyroplane developer Skyworks Aeronautics Corp. is also active in this new form of air transportation.
autorotation: The state of flight where the main rotor system is being turned by the force of the relative wind rather than driven by shaft power or a reaction drive.
gyroplane: The general term for an autorotating aircraft using an unpowered rotor for lift and one or more propellers for forward flight.
gyrodyne: An autogyro that is capable of vertical flight and/or hovering, as well as extended forward flight in autorotation (aka, a powered gyroplane).
autogyro: An alternative general term for a gyroplane.
Autogiro: The original term, trademarked and licensed by Juan de la Cierva (Spain), for licensed versions of his autogyro technology.
“The advanced air mobility space has seen rapid investment and growth over the last year,” said Steven Montes, defense electronics analyst, who covers the AAM market for Forecast International, an aerospace consultancy. “With the sheer number of aircraft designs floating around, joint efforts to get those aircraft into use will be the deciding factor in long-term success. Skyworks seems to understand that crucial task of the next half-decade.”
Over the last two years, Skyworks has posted a steady stream of news regarding its gyroplane products, investments and partnerships, a clear indication that this industry veteran is serious about penetrating the AAM sector.
Most significantly, in February 2021, Skyworks announced a $100M investment commitment from GEM Global Yield LLC SCS, the Luxembourg-based “global emerging markets” private investment group (see “Skyworks is a $100M GEM,” Vertiflite, March/April 2021). Under the agreement, GEM will provide Skyworks with a share subscription facility (SSF) of up to $100M for a 36-month term. An SSF is a formal agreement between a company and an investor that purchases shares at an agreed-upon price, and essentially acts as a line of credit for the development of its gyroplane-based products, which are described below.
The Turbine-Powered Hawk 5
Skyworks announced in July that it had begun initial certification of its turbine-powered Hawk 5 gyroplane. Barry Jones, Skyworks director of aviation operations and chief pilot, is leading the certification effort in the United Kingdom. In addition, Skyworks hired former British Army Air Corps Major (retired) Andy Ozanne as its test pilot in October.
As a gyroplane, the Hawk 5 uses a free-spinning rotor to provide lift, along with a conventional pusher propeller for thrust. Conventional gyroplanes cannot hover like helicopters, but the Hawk 5 is capable of takeoff with a short runway roll.
In flight, the unpowered rotor remains in autorotation. In the event of an engine failure, the rotor would continue to spin, helping the pilot slow down and land the aircraft smoothly. A single 450-shp (435-kW) Rolls-Royce M250-B17 turboprop powers the Hawk 5, which does not need a transmission or anti-torque thruster.
The Hawk 5 is a five-passenger version of the four-seat Hawk 4, first flown in 1999 (see “Modern-Day Autogyros: Back to the Future,” Vertiflite, Summer 2003).
“We have recently stood up a certification and flight test organization in the UK to handle flight-testing and certification of the Hawk 5,” Skyworks’ Chief Technology Advisor Don Woodbury told Vertiflite. “The United Kingdom has a long history with gyroplanes. So, we are looking to leverage that role with other regulatory agencies.” Specifically, Skyworks aims to certify first with the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), and then with European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which, Woodbury said, has “about 95% commonality with the regulation that we plan to use to certify the Hawk 5.” Through reciprocity with the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other countries such as Transport Canada, this could pave the way for eventual approval in countries around the world.
On Oct. 11–14, the original four-seat gyroplane (mocked up as a “Hawk 5”), was exhibited at the International Armament and Military Equipment Fair, in Belgrade, Serbia (see “Industry Briefs,” Vertiflite, Nov/Dec 2021). The aircraft is in development with Skyworks’ partner UTVA, the Serbian state-owned manufacturer of light general aviation aircraft.
The Electric-Powered eGyro
For this article, Skyworks provided Vertiflite with the first impression of the eGyro configuration. In contrast to the previous notional graphic that was a wingless, single-propeller concept (not unlike its Hawk series), the eGyro gyroplane design shows a wide wingspan with each wingtip ending in a large winglet with a three-bladed pusher propeller. In contrast to past autogyro designs, the wingspan is greater than the rotor diameter. Also evident is a notably wide-span canard. Both the wing and the canard are set low on the body, presumably with a long, retractable landing gear arrangement.
In July, Skyworks announced that it had selected Newport News, Virginia-based Eagle Technologies, LLC, to design and fabricate the rotor system for Skyworks’ eGyro. Eagle has developed and built numerous rotor systems, including for Sikorsky’s X2 and Raider high-speed helicopters, and has assisted in various aircraft and component development efforts.
“The partnership with Williams will bring their talents with aerodynamics and design as well as their electric powertrain capabilities to the eGyro,” said Woodbury. The eGyro provides a “practical approach to intra- and inter-city passenger transport,” said Woodbury. Skyworks announced in November that it had forged a strategic partnership with UK-based Williams Advanced Engineering (WAE) to collaborate on the design, fabrication and testing of the eGyro. “We are excited to be partnering with Williams Advanced Engineering, born from Formula 1 racing, a globally recognized leader in advanced composites, electrification systems, and lightweight engineering, to develop our groundbreaking eGyro electric aircraft,” stated John E. Michel, CEO of Skyworks. Williams had previously worked with Airbus to develop the Zephyr record-breaking, high-altitude unmanned aircraft system (UAS), and BAE Systems on the electrification of future aircraft. WAE’s credentials are well suited to this project.
The updated eGyro configuration has been developed through Skywork’s partnership with Eagle Technologies, and Skyworks anticipates further advancements to the eGyro design through its partnership with WAE.
In December 2020, Skyworks and Mobius Energy Corp. announced a strategic partnership to adopt and improve Mobius’ battery technologies to meet the needs of Skyworks’ eGyro. Skyworks has teamed up with Mobius Energy as the AAM launch customer for a battery subscription model in which batteries are replaced every three to six months when the capacity degrades to 85-90% percent. Mobius will handle the recycling or disposal of the battery when it reaches its end of life.
In June, Skyworks announced the order of 100 eGyro gyroplanes by a consortium of Mobius Energy and Mint Air, a sister company of Mobius and launch customer for the eGyro. The order includes options for an additional 100 aircraft. Mint Air is building an AAM service center in South Korea and envisions assembling eGyros in Korea.
Skyworks also announced in July that Nortavia Transportes Aeros — a leading aircraft commercial flight training and maintenance certification academy in operation for over 30 years in Porto, Portugal — would purchase 10 eGyros. “With our many years of preparing pilots for both civilian and commercial flight operations, our team at Nortavia is ecstatic to add Skyworks’ best in class electric gyro to our growing fleet,” said Nortavia CEO Dr. Cassiano Rodrigues. Skyworks CEO Michel stated, “We are also excited about the prospects of working with this very experienced team to develop eGyro training and maintenance certification programs for customers in Europe, Africa, and South America.”
Meanwhile, Europcar Brazil (the South American branch of the world’s largest rental car company) placed an order for 50 Skyworks’ eGyro aircraft in September, bringing the total number of conditional orders and options to 260 eGyro aircraft.
Brazil is the fourth-largest market for civil helicopters after Russia, Canada and the US. Skyworks appointed Dr. Marcelo Augusto de Felippes as Director of Business Development for South America in June 2020. Felippes also serves as CEO of Logistics International Associates (LIA) and is a Special Advisor to the Secretary General of the Inter-American Chamber of Transportation. CIT represents more than 100 associations in 19 countries of the Americas, and is interested in supporting the spread of AAM to South and Central America.
Skyworks also announced in August that Dr. Stefan Berger was joining the company’s Strategic Board of Advisors. From 2017 to 2021, Berger served as Director of Electrification at Jaguar Land Rover. In this capacity, he laid the foundation for the company’s transformation to electric vehicles, including the launch of the company’s first electric vehicle, the Jaguar I-Pace.
In parallel, Skyworks is also focusing on bringing the company public. Skyworks hired certified public accountant (CPA) Robert Tirva as a board director and as the head of the company’s corporate audit committee. Tirva’s experience as a public company audit committee chair and as chief accounting officer of a Fortune 500 company will help to fulfill an important role as Skyworks prepares to go public via a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) or initial public offering (IPO).
Meanwhile, in November, MintAir, Mobius Energy, Skyworks, Lotte Corporation, and Lotte Rental announced a consortium to conduct component tests and test flights of Skyworks’ eGyro electric aircraft in 2022–23. Lotte is South Korea’s fifth-largest family-owned conglomerate (a “chaebol”), with four key business areas: food and beverage, retail, chemical, and hotel and service. Lotte Rental is the top supplier of vehicle rentals in South Korea.
The consortium formed to “establish a vibrant runway-independent electric air mobility passenger and cargo movement capability, including all necessary certification and infrastructure development to support flight testing and the commercial launch of the eGyro [AAM] service in the Incheon region.” Additionally, the consortium intends to develop a pilot training program as well as maintenance and repair capabilities in the Incheon region to support efficient, scalable operations across the Republic of Korea.
The consortium plans to bring air mobility to Incheon, Korea, and will be working with the Institute for Aerospace Industry-Academia Collaboration (IAIAC), a nonprofit organization established in 2016 and funded by the Korean Ministry of Industry as a partnership between Incheon Metropolitan City and Inha University.
VertiJet, SparrowHawk, ScoutHawk and GyroLiner
Global AAM Plans
In terms of market growth, Asia — and South Korea particularly — seems more accepting of the AAM concept and the various aircraft from which to choose.
Forecast International’s Montes noted, “Skyworks is aware of the best places to try and squeeze out an advantage in the heavily competitive world of eVTOL aircraft, which will continue to grow.”
AAM is more than an efficiency and green-driven transportation concept. In the US alone, the AAM market is estimated to reach $115B annually by 2035, employing more than 280,000 staff, according to an analysis by international professional services company, Deloitte. AAM is “poised to break out and be a mobility mainstay in the 2030s,” noted the January 2021 Deloitte report.
Worth noting too is the projected environmental benefits from AAM. Industry leaders polled by Deloitte believe AAM aircraft will provide a sustainable and environmentally friendly transportation alternative to the current modes of air travel.
“While the cargo mobility market will likely be the first to grow and achieve scale, the passenger mobility market is expected to start slowly but catch up and exceed cargo beyond 2035,” the January 2021 report stated.
Developing forward-looking eVTOL technology to help meet the zero emission targets of the global community is a laudable goal. But this effort will be short-lived unless there is a corresponding business case for Skyworks and other companies vying for a seat at the AAM table.
Whether AAM is ultimately successful will depend largely on the combined efforts of aircraft manufacturers and system developers, governments at various levels, non-profits and associations, and fleet operators.
Skyworks began in 1986 as Groen Brothers Aviation (see “Advantageous Autorotation,” Vertiflite, July/Aug 2018). Venture capitalist Steve Stevanovich led an acquisition of Groen Brothers Aviation in 2012 by forming a new private company that acquired all of the assets of Groen Brothers in a transaction worth more than $210M. The Skyworks transition was finalized in 2016.
During a recent interview, Vertiflite posed several questions to Woodbury about Skyworks and its various products and development plans.
In the 2000s, Woodbury was the head of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Strategic Technology Office and Program Manager for the DARPA Heliplane program. Heliplane was a compound gyrodyne aircraft with a tip-jet rotor and fixed wing. The DARPA program was a development effort with Groen Brothers and the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) to develop a 400-mph (640-km/h) turbofan-powered gyroplane with a 1,000-nm (1,850-km) range and a 1,000-lb (450-kg) payload. Significant testing and design was conducted, which formed the basis of Skyworks’ updated design, called VertiJet, which could be used for military or civilian roles.
Woodbury was candid when asked about Skyworks’ possible work with the US government: “We have elected not to pursue government funding. Our intent is to use private dollars to develop and demonstrate our aircraft, then pursue government funding for military variants in parallel with commercial development.” Since 2019, Skyworks has been working under a strategic partnership with the famed Scaled Composites (a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman) to collaborate on the design, build and test of a prototype of the Skyworks VertiJet. Skyworks envisions VertiJet to be a replacement for helicopter and tiltrotor aircraft configurations in markets where speed, range and cost-efficiency are important.
He also emphasized that gyrodyne technology emphasizes simplicity, which seems to run counter to the current path for new aircraft envisaged by Department of Defense (DOD). “The [defense] community seems to be moving toward ever more exquisitely complex designs to improve performance,” reflected Woodbury. “What is noteworthy about the gyrodyne technology is its lack of complexity yet outstanding performance.”
Keeping it simple pays dividends, he said: “The lack of complexity breaks this vicious cycle on development and operating costs that have plagued DOD aircraft programs.”
The company has also been developing its ScoutHawk, a tandem two-seat, clean-sheet gyroplane that can be outfitted with various powertrains — such as a gasoline-powered engine, fuel cells or batteries — to power the pusher propeller. The ScoutHawk could be optionally manned for airborne surveillance, inspection, cargo, law enforcement, border patrol or multiple military missions.
In 2003, Groen Brothers flew the prototype of what became its two-seat, quick-build kit SparrowHawk III centerline-thrust gyroplane, under its American Autogyro, Inc., subsidiary. The diminutive autogyro remains in service, said Woodbury, but deliveries stopped in 2007. Skyworks is considering relaunching updated kits.
At the opposite end of the scale, the passenger carrying GyroLiner airliner “is on hold,” Woodbury noted, pending development of the company’s top projects, the Hawk 5 and eGyro.
On paper, the 240-mph (385-km/h) GyroLiner is a large compound gyroplane with a capacity of up to 200 passengers in a pressurized cabin with VTOL capability and maximum range of 350 miles (563 km). The GyroLiner concept is a modern take on the Fairey Rotodyne compound gyroplane of the 1950s and ’60s (see “Advantageous Autorotation,” Vertiflite, July/Aug 2018).
The interview pivoted toward the sensitive subject about the safety of gyroplanes.
“The safety issues with gyroplanes are truly ironic,” said Woodbury. “Gyroplanes were developed to overcome the safety challenges of other aircraft configurations. With its autorotating rotor, a gyroplane offers unparalleled safety. Gyroplanes delivered the mail between 1939 and 1949 and had a good safety record. Then the aircraft faded into obscurity. Hobbyist-designed gyroplanes have since suffered safety challenges, but today’s professionally designed gyroplanes are fundamentally safe aircraft when flown within their operating envelope,” he said.
Some gyroplane accidents were due to design errors in the misplacement of rotor and propeller thrust vectors as it related to the center of gravity (see “Gyroplanes: From Novelty to Mainstream?” Vertiflite, March/April 2019).
Woodbury was asked about current aerospace-related research with universities, similar to its past work on gyroplanes with Georgia Tech. He said the company is working presently with the University of Liverpool on its electric gyro technology and is in talks with another as-yet unnamed university about joining the eGyro team.
While the number of eVTOL developers keeps expanding, Skyworks’ runway-independent gyroplanes remain competitive in the traditional world of rotorcraft and the emerging AAM sector.
Summed Woodbury: “The Skyworks family of gyroplanes is a rebirth of rotary-wing aviation that returns it to its roots of safety, simplicity and cost effectiveness. We believe that safe, simple, efficient, low cost, runway independent gyroplanes are a compelling path to AAM and additional civil and defense applications.”
About the Author
Robert W. Moorman is a freelance writer specializing in various facets of the fixed-wing and rotary-wing air transportation business. With more than 30 years of experience, his writing clients include several of the leading aviation magazines targeting the civil and military markets. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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