New AgustaWestland Boss Bullish Despite Challenges

 - June 17, 2013, 3:05 AM
AgustaWestland hopes to certify the military version of its AW189 helicopter–the AW149–by the end of 2013.

Daniele Romiti, AgustaWestland’s new CEO, says the company needs to adopt a new mindset if it is to improve its capabilities. He summarized the call to action in a motto: “Think Customer,” which he said is embedded in the Anglo-Italian OEM’s “StepChange” program.

“These must not remain only words; I really want our people to look at things from the customer’s perspective,” said Romiti, as the company faces technological challenges and giant competitors. “We look at European support in the helicopter R&D field, where there are just two major players–us and Eurocopter–on which the EU can concentrate available funds,” he told AIN during a visit to the company’s Cascina Costa, Italy headquarters.

Technology is definitely at the forefront of Romiti’s thinking and he stressed that “considering the company’s recent track record, the results of projects AgustaWestland is working on today will be visible in a year’s time.”

One particular project is close to Romiti’s heart: “We strongly believe in the tiltrotor. That is the optimal solution for long-range and high-speed transport aircraft with Vtol capacities. It is apparently also the most suitable solution for the U.S. Joint Multi-Role helicopter.” To that end, AgustaWestland is working hard to optimize the AW609 in terms of performance and capability, adopting new Rockwell Collins and BAE Systems avionics and introducing new enhancements–including aerodynamics and weight refinements–developed at Yeovil thanks to the UK government regional growth fund, which is aimed at boosting private sector employment. AW’s ultimate goal is to achieve certification by 2017.

“Further reducing noise and vibration remains one of our targets, and for this and other testing we are using an AW139. We are looking at an active system to cut rotor-induced vibrations on the transmission link,” Romiti said. However, the company is considering further improvements. “Project Zero shows how far ahead AgustaWestland is looking. However, I hope that in five years’ time this project will be capable of downloading intermediate solutions onto our products, such as an electric tail rotor and single-blade control via a slip ring,” he added, the latter allowing further vibration reduction.

UAV Helicopters

Unmanned capability might well be the other frontier for helicopters, he predicted. “We look forward to flying our SW-4 RUAS in Poland in a manned version next month. The first unmanned flight is scheduled later in the year. AgustaWestland aims to develop a scalable manned/unmanned system that will allow it to transform our family of products into UAVs, for many uses, for example, to resupply forward bases without risking pilots’ lives,” he said.

Looking ahead does not mean forgetting the present, Romiti cautioned. Currently, more than 40 percent of AW’s revenues come from the support and training services. “We must improve this area, and here the Step Change program will be a key factor, along with further technological solutions,” the AgustaWestland CEO said. “An example is the introduction of RFID (radio frequency identification) tags on major components in the AW189 that will allow automatic downloading of data when the aircraft returns from a mission, bringing HUMS a step forward and providing even better prediction and thus higher availability.” Once fully available, those solutions will be adopted for the other members of the family and will eventually be retrofitted at customers’ will. Step Change must not remain a slogan or a marketing motto, said Romiti, who considers the capacity to find customer-tailored solutions a key factor for which investments in manpower might make the difference in the future. He also maintains that “personalization” is part of AgustaWestland’s history.

Support and training have recently been put under a single responsibility. In terms of training, besides the A. Marchetti Training Academy at Sesto Calende, Italy, which is constantly increasing and expanding its capacities, and the Yeovil Academy in the UK, the company has training facilities in the U.S.(Philadelphia), in Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur) and in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

Two Near Certification

Looking at current products, two new helicopters are expected to achieve certification soon. “We aim at certifying the AW189 by the end of this summer,” Romiti said. “The aircraft has reached a good level of maturation and is being awaited especially by the oil and gas sector. Its cabin layout is designed to ease ingress and egress as required by this type of operator, some of which ask for no more than two passengers per emergency exit.” Based on a common platform but with specialized configurations, the AW189 certification opens the path to the AW149 military qualification, which is anticipated by year-end.

A dual-use approach has already been tested on the AW139. The “M” version is currently flown by the Italian Air Force for SAR missions as well as by numerous paramilitary customers that operate military-configured AW139s. “As for the AW169, our 4.5-ton new machine, it has just one more year of development ahead,” Romiti said. He also emphasized how much this aircraft is oriented toward new technological applications, such as more-electric solutions. “We look forward to reaching full certification in the summer of 2014, this helicopter having attracted considerable interest and a relevant number of orders, considering the program status,” Romiti added.

Moving toward lighter machines, the new 2.5-ton aircraft developed in cooperation with Russia is generating a lot of enthusiasm in that country. Production of the first AW139 was completed at the HeliVert plant in Tomilino, south of Moscow, and the maiden flight occurred in December 2012. Romiti commented, “We want to be wholly on target in terms of weight and cost, as this product will enter an arena with very strong competitors.” He added that the company currently is validating the architecture together with its Russian counterpart. The AgustaWestland CEO considers that the market for such a single-engine helicopter is strong, especially in the U.S. and Australasia.

At the other end of AgustaWestland portfolio, the AW101 maintains its validity, the company having developed a system that allows pilots to “see” the terrain in brown-out conditions, exploiting synergies between Doppler and radar. The solution illustrates AgustaWestland’s avionics integration skills, as company test rigs also are used for such developments. As for the NH 90, “We must find a solution with Eurocopter in order to be able to further enhance the competitiveness of the NH 90 on the international market, which is not an easy task, considering the financing support structure that can be exploited by U.S. companies.”

The problem of a contract dispute in India could not be avoided when talking to Romiti. “We have found no evidence that we have to reconsider our denials of any wrongdoing in relation with our business activities in India. However, the contract is currently suspended, something not foreseen in the contract document that includes only a cancellation or a termination. So, we’ve asked for talks aimed at carrying on the program.”

Currently, the first three AW101s delivered to India are flying and are used to train and maintain crew capacity. “We have been in India for the last 40 years, and we have recently offered our AW109 LUH and our AW189 for Indian Navy and Coast Guard bids,” Romiti added, emphasizing that three more AW101s are ready for delivery. He admitted that foreseeing the right timing for a solution to the legal issue is not easy.