First electric tiltrotor makes public debut

March 7, 2013
Electric-powered aerial drones are on the drawing board. A new prototype by AgustaWestland shows some of the thinking that goes into these ideas.

One of the first aerial drones to be powered by electric motors recently made its debut. Made by AgustaWestland in Europe, the drone is in the form of a tilt-rotor. Called Project Zero, the craft carries two rotors integrated in its wings. The rotors are horizontal during take off and landing, then tilt during cruising to provide forward thrust. When the aircraft sits on the ground, the rotors can point into the breeze to let the windmilling blades help charge the batteries.

Electric motor-powered aerial drones have a number of advantages over those powered by internal combustion engines. Their infrared footprint, for example, is generally small because there is no hot exhaust. The heat that these craft do generate can generally be secreted inside the fuselage. And the only noise they emit comes from the rotors. In all, they can operate more stealthily than ICE-powered devices without resorting to exotic technology.

AgustaWestland -- which also makes the Bell Agusta 609, a  civilian tilt rotor aircraft -- says the prototype's first flight took place in Italy in 2011. It was one where the unmanned  aircraft was tethered to the ground. Additional untethered test flights have taken place since then, the company says. Reports are that aircraft's wing tips can detach for missions when the aircraft’s primary use will be as a helicopter.

Unfortunately AgustaWestland is saying nothing about the aircraft's specs. Project Zero is billed as a technology demonstrator, and AgustaWestland says it is considering building a hybrid version with a diesel engine that would drive a generator.

The aviation site AVweb.com also reports that the electric tiltrotor has a space for a cockpit, but that there is no transmission linking the two rotors in case one of the motors fails. This lack of redundancy likely ensures this aircraft will remain pilotless, AVweb.com says.

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