Procurement: Italy Embraces Coaxial Rotor Tech

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October 31, 2022: The U.S. has asked Italy to partner with American firms in the development of coaxial rotor helicopters. Italy was an early partner on the F-35 fighter program and became a manufacturer for some components. Italy ordered 135 F-35s and built Europe's only F-35 assembly and maintenance facility. As more European nations order F-35s because of the Ukraine War, the Italian facility is going to be busy for some time.

While Italy is a major developer and manufacturer of commercial helicopters, they have been less successful with military models. Partnering with American firms Sikorsky and Boeing gives Italy an opportunity to be a leader in the development and manufacture of multi-rotor helicopters.

Sikorsky produced the first service-ready American helicopter in 1942, and later the UH-60 Blackhawk with its many variants. Sikorsky now seeks to take the lead in designing and developing new helicopter designs with multiple rotors to greatly improve performance. This means more maneuverability and record-breaking speeds of over 400 kilometers an hour. The new design is actually evolutionary, using coaxial rotors (that is two sets of rotors, one above the other with the props going in opposite directions and eliminating the need of a rear propeller to keep the aircraft from spinning) and a pusher prop in the rear. There is also extensive use of new rotor designs and software operated controls. The new design not only produces high speeds, but, more importantly, enables operation with heavy loads at high altitudes (think Afghanistan). Earlier, the major user of coaxial prop helicopters was Kamov, which, since the 1950s, built several models for naval use in Russia.

Back in 2010 used its 3.6-ton X-2 multirotor demonstrator helicopter, and developed into the S-97, a prototype of a light attack/reconnaissance helicopter that can carry six troops, or a ton of weapons. The S-97 prototype first flew in 2015 while the X-2 continued testing more new technology.

The S-97 effort was successful and U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) wants to test a version of the S-97 that could complement or replace its MH-6 Little Bird light observation helicopter. MH-6 also carries out transport, attack and escort missions.

Using the S-97 technology Sikorsky the 6.3-ton Raider X was developed. This multi-rotor design has a top speed of over 400 kilometers an hour. Cruising speed is lower but provides flight endurance of nearly three hours. The multi-rotor is used for lift while a rear propeller produces thrust. Flight control software enables the pilot to carry out maneuvers impossible with current helicopter designs. A larger 13.6-ton Defiant X provides high-speed, long range assault capability. While the Defiant X is mainly about speed and maneuverability, it could replace some UH-60s as transports. For the moment, transport helicopters using conventional tech are still more efficient.

Raider X and Defiant X will be ready for service and mass production in a few years and that’s why Italy is willing to partner in that as soon as possible.

 


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