Leonardo Helicopters today confirmed plans to develop a hybrid-electric-powered light helicopter that could be available in the second half of this decade. During a press briefing, the Italian rotorcraft manufacturer indicated that it will likely use the prototypes for its new AW09 aircraft as technology demonstrators for the new project.
The AW09 is the rebranded product name for the SH09 single-engine helicopter being developed by Leonardo's Swiss-based subsidiary Kopter. This is due to complete type certification at the end of 2022 or early in 2023. At that point, Leonardo expects to accelerate plans for a hybrid-electric aircraft.
According to Leonardo Helicopters chief technology officer Matteo Ragazzi, it is important to begin the development work with a technology demonstrator, rather than a fully-formed prototype, in order to facilitate a constructive dialogue with regulators as to how to meet safety requirements for the new propulsion system. He said that the engineering team will consider both electric batteries and other types of fuel cell as it develops its plans for a project that is a key part of its Be Tomorrow 2030 strategic plan.
In 2013, Leonardo announced plans to develop electric and hybrid-electric concepts for a new tiltrotor aircraft through its Project Zero initiative. This was based on a technology demonstrator that the Italian company, then called AgustaWestland, had already flown secretly in 2011 and 2012.
The project was led by the company's then-vice-president of research and development James Wang, who is now chief technical advisor to XTI Aircraft for its TriFan eVTOL program. Leonardo quietly abandoned Project Zero in the intervening years.
The rebranding of the AW09 was unveiled almost exactly a year after Italy’s Leonardo completed its acquisition of Kopter, which is now designated as a center of excellence for new technologies within the group. Instead of featuring the standard three digits for Leonardo’s AW aircraft, the new product name has just two digits, with the third replaced by the rotor blade symbol used by Kopter as a bow to the cross in the Swiss flag.
According to Michele Riccobono, Kopter’s chief technology officer, the P4 prototype now being built will incorporate some undisclosed design changes from the existing P3 aircraft, which this year will complete its contribution to flight testing. P3 has already logged more than 40 flight hours since it underwent some configuration changes in January, including enhancements to the main rotor head and gearbox, an extended rotor mast, improvements to flight controls, and the integration of the Garmin G3000H avionics suite.
P4 will be used to reverify and consolidate results from the work with P3 before being employed to collect the data required for EASA certification. It will be joined later by a PS5 prototype.
Flight testing has been conducted at Kopter’s headquarters at Mollis, Switzerland, as well as at Pozallo in Sicily. Kopter CEO Marco Viola said that the two companies’ engineering teams have worked increasingly closely together over the past 12 months and that the rebranding of the SH09 marks the official entry of the aircraft into the Leonardo product family.