Euro Skunks, Inside Secrets of Project Zero

The management of secret programs, whether they be a classified military project or a carefully protected commercial initiative, is just as important to the success of the venture as the technology itself. At least that seems to be the key message every time the veils are even partially lifted by any test and development organization involved in covert work.The success of Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, the pioneering advanced development group that set the gold standard for fast-paced, efficient testing from the 1940s onwards, has for example been attributed as much to the company’s innovative culture and can-do mindset as it has to the remarkable technologies involved. 

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Rare view of Project Zero in hovering flight (AgustaWestland/Guy Norris)

Following the unveiling this year of AgustaWestland’s ambitious ‘Project Zero’ vertical take-off and landing flying wing technology demonstrator, we are now getting a glimpse into how elements of Kelly Johnson’s original Skunk Works model have been emulated in other parts of the world. Speaking at the recent AIAA Aviation 2013 meeting in Los Angeles, AgustaWestland’s research and technology vice president James Wang, provided just such an insight into the background behind the creation of Project Zero.

The project was originally targeted to last just six months and was based at the company’s Cascina Costa site in Italy.  “Twenty of us had to sign non-disclosure agreements against our own company. We tested mostly at night, usually between 2am and 6am in the morning so nobody would know.  We have an advanced concepts group and an $8 million budget, half of which was paid for by company sponsors. So it was a joint project.” One of the most innovative aspects of the approach was the method for supporting procurement of parts and materials for the unusual-looking craft. “We had a box with cash in it and every time a team member needed anything they would come in open the box and take what they needed,” says Wang.

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Project Zero between flights (AgustaWestland)

The shopping list was extensive. The 40-ft span vehicle was equipped with a fly-by-wire flight control system which controlled individual blades in the two rotor sets embedded in the wing. There was no swash plate or hydraulic system. The two rotors lay flush with the wing to provide lift for vertical flight, and tilted for forward flight. “The only thing off-the-shelf was the flight control computer. Everything else was built from scratch in six months,” adds Wang.
Specially made electro-mechanical actuators controlled the movement of flight controls and landing gear, while battery power drove the electrically-driven rotors which had a disc loading “similar” to the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor. The vehicle also incorporated intakes for cooling the electric battery and avionics, while the electric motors themselves were liquid cooled.

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