LONDON—Leonardo says it has entered exploratory discussions with the U.S. Army to investigate potential missions for its AW609 commercial tiltrotor.                                                                       

The talks with the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center (Amrdec) have emerged because of the Pentagon’s wider interest in potential roles for smaller-model tiltrotor aircraft, the company’s vice president for strategy and business development, Roberto Garavaglia, told reporters here May 6.

“They are interested in testing a smaller [aircraft] to work with their larger tiltrotor aircraft,” Garavaglia told Aviation Week. He added that discussions could lead to Leonardo providing one of the prototypes to the Amrdec in the coming years after the aircraft has achieved civil certification.

But there has been no discussion on what specific kinds of missions the aircraft could fulfill.

Leonardo is unable to offer an armed version of the AW609 due to contractual issues with Bell Helicopter, which had a 50% stake in the program until 2012.

Military support missions have been mulled for the AW609 in the past, with the Marine Corps at one point examining the potential of an armed version to provide fire support for its V-22 Ospreys and replace the AH-1 Cobra.

The AW609 has already found at least one military customer in the form of the United Arab Emirates’ Joint Aviation Command (JAC), which plans to use the aircraft for search-and-rescue (SAR) operations. The Italian armed forces are also interested in the AW609’s capabilities.

Garavaglia said the UAE will now be the launch customer for the tiltrotor, with development and testing of the SAR capabilities likely to get underway in 2018. The UAE is currently the only formally announced customer for the AW609, with a plan to purchase three aircraft with options for another three detailed at the Dubai Airshow in 2015.

The UAE JAC is one of three operators that has been involved in the defining of mission sets for the aircraft. The others are Bristow, for oil and gas support missions, and Era Group for emergency medical operations. Garavaglia said several operators were eager to be “early adopters” of the tiltrotor technology.

FAA certification under the Powered Lift category is planned for late 2018, with deliveries likely in early 2019. Garavaglia says Leonardo is planning to significantly ramp up the aircraft’s marketing over the next 18 months.

The first prototype, AC1, is continuing test flying duties in Italy after being moved from the U.S. last year following the loss of the second prototype, AC2, in October 2015. The third aircraft, AC3, has been involved in icing trials in the U.S., with several flights flown behind the U.S. Army’s Helicopter Icing Spray System (HISS) CH-47 Chinook test helicopter. The fourth prototype, AC4, is expected to take to the air by year’s end.