Piasecki Aircraft Corporation has been awarded a $37 million multi-year contract by AFWERX, the Air Force’s innovation arm, to flight demonstrate its Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES) tilt-duct vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) unmanned aerial system (UAS).
The contract, awarded in conjunction with the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) as part of its Strategic Funding Increase (STRATFI) program, is also for the demonstration of industry-leading hydrogen fuel cell propulsion technologies for VTOL and other aviation applications.
“The STRATFI program plays a critical role in advancing emerging American technologies and we are thrilled to receive this significant investment,” said John Piasecki, CEO of Piasecki Aircraft, in a press release announcing the news. He said the funding will allow the company to demonstrate the unique tilt-duct configuration on its ARES aircraft, which, the company claims, enables a seamless transition between hover and fixed-wing forward flight.
ARES is a modular multimission VTOL aircraft that can be operated as an unmanned platform, or with an optional manned flight module. It is designed with a small landing footprint to enable shipboard and expeditionary operations as well as provide embedded multi-mission C4I, ISR, combat, and logistics support to small distributed combat forces operating over long distances and in complex terrain.
ARES is designed to be able to incorporate quickly reconfigurable “Mission Payload Modules,” offering the flexibility to fly different missions and reducing logistics footprint and cost.
The ARES demonstration vehicle was produced in partnership with Lockheed Martin with funding from DARPA, and Piasecki said the follow-on funding from the U.S. Air Force and Army would allow it (and Honeywell) to integrate a triplex fly-by-wire flight control system and begin flight tests by the end of this year.
The STRATFI program will also fund the demonstration of zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell propulsion technology for VTOLs, including Piasecki’s upcoming PA-890 compound helicopter.
“Demonstration of the PA-890 would be a world-first for electric aviation and would usher in a new era of clean vertical flight,” said John Piasecki. “While R&D work on these projects began several years ago, this new funding will rapidly expand our ability to deliver these radically new vehicles to customers and partners across the military and commercial sectors.”
Piasecki is working with ZeroAvia to develop and implement its revolutionary High Temperature Proton Exchange Membrane (HTPEM) hydrogen fuel cell technology for the PA-890 and other VTOL applications.
“Higher temperature fuel cells are a critical technology to delivering improvements in specific power and unlocking truly clean propulsion for larger fixed wing aircraft, but they will also enable rotorcraft and VTOL applications,” said Val Miftakhov, founder and CEO of ZeroAvia. “Working together on this project with a company of Piasecki’s heritage and expertise in rotorcraft, with US Air Force backing, is a hugely exciting step in delivering on our vision of hydrogen-electric engines in every aircraft.”
Piasecki said it believes the PA-890 will be the first zero-emission hydrogen-powered compound helicopter. The slowed-rotor winged helicopter is intended for use in a variety of missions, including emergency medical services (EMS) operations, delivery of high-value on-demand logistics, on-demand mobility personnel air transport.
The company said that, in addition to zero carbon emissions, the PA-890 eVTOL enables up to a 50-percent reduction in direct operating cost and reduced noise compared with today’s fossil fuel-powered turbine helicopters — and significantly greater range than all-electric helicopters.
The news follows Piasecki’s acquisition of the former Sikorsky Heliplex facility in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, earlier this year. The company plans to transform the 219,000-square-foot facility into an advanced R&D and testing center for VTOL and UAS vehicles. The facility will include engineering, assembly, paint and finishing stations, as well as a flight test and delivery center. Piasecki said it will employ about 400 workers by 2028.