THIS REMARKABLY STYLISH AIRCRAFT IS ACTUALLY A TILT ROTOR—AND IT IS ELECTRIC
If you examine this picture carefully, you will notice two shrouded rotors positioned horizontally to the rear of the extremely elegant wings. This is not a conventional fixed-wing airplane. The rotors allow it to take off and land vertically—just like a helicopter—but then rotate 90 degrees to provide forward thrust. At that point, the wings, and not the rotors, provide most of the lift.
But can Project Zero—yes, it really is called that—hover? It can do that too.
This aircraft has been designed with unusual style and flair. Yes, it is only a technology demonstrator, but most great aircraft technology breakthroughs originate in just such a manner. Beyond that, the reports are that Project Zero works—which is why it is finally being shown. Previously, for over a year and a half, it has been kept secret. This is scarcely surprising. It demonstrates some remarkably original thinking—yet, reportedly, it was designed and built in a little more than six months.
I have long believed in the concept of an electric aircraft—starting with a hybrid electric version. There are good reasons for this:
- Conventional fuel is a major cost component.
- The use of conventional fuel is decidedly detrimental to the environment.
- Hybrid electric power is becoming well proven in automobiles.
- Hybrid electric power is significantly less expensive.
- Hybrid electric power is vastly quieter.
- Electric motors are constantly being improved and are innately simpler and less bulky than the alternatives.
In the case of Project Zero, the aircraft’s control systems, flight controls and landing gear actuators are all electrically powered—which means no hydraulics are needed—and the aircraft does not require a transmission. This all adds up to a significant decrease in mechanical complexity and cost—and an increase in reliability. It also saves a great deal of weight, which has all kinds of positive implications.
Currently, the aircraft is battery powered—which, given the limitations of existing battery technology—allows for only limited flight duration. But a hybrid electric version is being considered using diesel to power a generator.
Conventional helicopters are wonderful things, and extremely useful, but they are also slow, noisy, expensive to buy and maintain—and spend their time trying to vibrate themselves to pieces (vibration is in a major problem). Could it be that Augusta Westland—a particularly interesting company—have come up with a viable new approach to rotary flight?
It would seem to be a decided possibility.
Augusta Westland’s management have stated publicly that they believe the future of rotary flight lies with tilt rotor aircraft. Given the cost and complexity of the V-22 Osprey—which is currently in service with various branches of the military—I would have doubted that, but Project Zero is such an original conception, they may well be right.
The company already has considerable experience of tilt rotor aircraft. It has recently developed the AW609 (see below) which is, in effect, a civilian derivation of the V-22 Osprey. Project Zero, with its emphasis on simplicity, would suggest they have learned a great deal from this exercise.