Roberto Garavaglia, Senior Vice President of Strategy & Innovation, Leonardo Helicopters. Image: Leonardo

Interview: Roberto Garavaglia of Leonardo


Roberto Garavaglia is Senior Vice President of Strategy & Innovation at Leonardo Helicopters, a major division of Italy’s Leonardo S.p.A., a €12.2 billion ($13.6 billion) turnover aerospace group. Roberto is also Chair of the Vertical Flight Society Board of Directors; we sat down together on May 14 at the VFS Forum 75 in Philadelphia, the 75th annual convention dedicated to vertical flight engineering and trends, shortly after his opening address at the conference.

Q: At Forum 75 with Roberto Garavaglia of Leonardo. Thanks for sitting down with us. Now, I saw that you have recently introduced the AWHERO. Perhaps you could tell me about the civilian applications of that new aircraft?

Roberto Garavaglia: Yes. And thank you for this question. The HERO product will start production very soon for first deliveries in the early 2020s. Your question is very rightly focused on the civilian market, because the business case for us is for both military and civil applications. First of all, the HERO is at 205 kilograms, so at roughly 450 pounds maximum gross weight unmanned helicopter. It’s in a traditional configuration. The differentiator with the competitors is the fact that it is completely designed in accordance with aeronautical practice and standards. So we believe it has an intrinsic robustness in terms of design that other designs may not be able to provide to the customer.

Having said that, the same concepts that apply to military applications apply for civil. So the famous three “D’s”, the dirty, dull and dangerous, are well-suited for unmanned, where the human asset on board becomes the liability rather than the enabler for a mission. Look at long missions: the aircraft will have an endurance up to six hours, roughly, depending on the payload. With an average payload of 35 kilograms (77 lb), which is a comprehensive suite of sensors, it can stay in the air for about six hours. That would be a long time for a single-pilot operation; it could become intrinsically dangerous. The practical applications include a number of observation missions, typically such things as pipelines, ports, pollution control; for ports, for example ships which are approaching a port and checking if they are dumping prohibited material in the area and understanding from the trail they are leaving in their wake the kind of pollutants they might be dumping into the water.

We believe that there are a number of countries, agencies, or individual ports which would be interested in using this aircraft. Other applications could include agricultural support; border patrol, when you don’t need to necessarily give it to a military authority, but it is just a civilian kind of operation; and disaster response. Italy is unfortunately prone to disasters such as earthquakes, and it is not the only such country. I know there are already some UAVs being used for that. A rotary-wing UAV is capable of providing a mission from the same place, and with long endurance, is certainly something which would help. Also for floods. Unfortunately, our country is also typically characterized by a number of floods. Some of them are happening even as we speak — there is a huge amount of rain in northeastern Italy, some rivers are posing clear danger. So this kind of “eye in the sky” can offer a realtime capability to provide a survey which might be difficult to ensure otherwise. When we have disasters associated with bad weather, you need to be able to fly within the bad weather and to ensure the mission capability, visibility typically, in bad weather. But that’s another story. There are other missions that the market will invent. And basically what we are doing now is we are engaging in the market to really find what is the best level of the sensors and mission capability that we need to deliver to the market.

Q: I noticed that there were what look like fake windows painted on the side of it. Is that to reassure the public?

Roberto Garavaglia: Actually, it is not a fake window; it is simply a panel to allow for hardware checks. But it is interesting that you asked that, it underlines how important the topic of public acceptance is for unmanned aircraft.

Q: Now, I read about manned-unmanned teaming. Perhaps you could speak a little bit about that?

Roberto Garavaglia: Yes. Manned-unmanned teaming is something more in the military domain at this point. It’s about extending the reach of a military helicopter, typically in an ISR mission. So, basically an intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance mission that you want to ensure through unmanned which can fly further, can fly in a different place. Connectivity is usually important, especially if you are in a semi-permissive or less than semi-permissive environment, you don’t want the risk a helicopter would accrue. And you can always use the manned-unmanned teaming. This is for the basic mission. The AWHERO is not meant to to carry weapons for example; it’s not big enough for that job. So any sort of manned-unmanned teaming will be within the realm of ISR missions. Other, more offensive or weaponized missions would require bigger assets and intensive weapon capability.

Q: Now, many new electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) designs feature distributed electric propulsion, tilted rotors, often to benefit from the long-range efficiency of winged flight. Is Leonardo doing any research in that direction?

Roberto Garavaglia: I cannot be too specific at this stage. I can only say, we are looking at this very closely; this technology will happen. We believe at the moment it’s a bit chaotic. I liken it to the start of the city marathon. There is a big crowd running; you have to wait a couple of miles to see who is really going to be the contender for the competition. There is a big crowd at the moment and we are observing the departure. But the marathon is a long thing.

From this parallel, in order to make eVTOL something which really works, you will have to overcome problems. We are seeing four main domains that we will have to overcome, or that industry in general will have to overcome. The first one is technology itself. The enabling technology is only partially there. You mentioned architectures which are connected with the electrical propulsion, which has completely different physical laws than those associated with the more traditional turbine engines. And this is one. So technology is going to be a great enabler, but today it’s a barrier. Battery capacity and the amount of energy per kilogram of battery or per unit weight of battery that you need to store. And the amount of power that you’re able to release for amounts of weight of battery, it still needs to be improved to become attractive to aviation from a practical point of view.

But then secondly you need to do work on the infrastructure. How is this going to work in our urban environments? This morning, during the opening session, we discussed how different the urban environments are in the various continents for building vertiports. In Europe, in America, in Asia or in South America even.

A third major enabler will be regulations. Huge, very important.

And the fourth, and by no means the least important, is public acceptance in the market. These things will fly potentially over everybody’s head. So its safety does not only concern the passengers, it concerns the whole population, the public. The first thing that aviation must ensure is safety. Do no harm is, I would say, our prime and foremost imperative, because gravity kills. If you’re not careful, if you don’t manage it, gravity kills. Even from a pretty low altitude; 1G is a pretty powerful vector. So we have to ensure this, you cannot just pull over as you could do on the road with an electric car. This is much more serious. It’s not more serious as a business, it’s more serious in terms of consequences if things don’t go the way they should be going.

Q: Now, I think you said during the panel this morning that Leonardo does 15% of its business in Italy, so 85% internationally. My question is, do you see the civilian unmanned market as a growth pillar?

Roberto Garavaglia: It is. Well, about the numbers, to be honest with you, we are not constructing the budget of revenues for the next year with such a significant amount of money coming from this application in the near future. I think after the introduction of the aircraft in the early 2020s, we will be able to have a more solid view as to what it can mean for us in terms of budget. Today Leonardo Helicopters is a roughly $4.5 billion (€4 billion) company. Before we really alter this and provide a significant contribution to the revenue, the helicopter division’s turnover, we’ll need to have a more secure and more stable market basis to anticipate what amount of that share could go to civilian unmanned. But if eVTOL happens, well, watch this space in 10 or 15 years!

Q: Now, to finish, let’s talk about recruitment, because aeronautics is changing very radically. How do you feel about recruiting the next generation of engineers?

Roberto Garavaglia: Well, the first thing is to attract them. I am what the British call a total aviation person. So I am in love with aviation. I’m doing what I like and that sort of thing, and I remember for me, it was a very important to be exposed to personal experiences. My father worked a lot abroad for his job. So I went very often to see him off at the airport to fly. Sometimes I flew with him. Then when the Apollo mission happened, I was between 9 and 10, and I remember at school, the newspaper writing about orbits and the moon and not understanding very much [laughter], but I was completely enthusiastic about that. So it’s about enthusiasm. I was a completely normal kid, I knew when I was 12 that I would have liked to be a pilot, but since I wear glasses, the second best choice was being an aeronautical engineer, which I became.

I think today we need to attract the right talent, maybe away from Wall Street and the consultants. It’s about passion I think, which is a very human sentiment, but it’s also about providing an opportunity, a real career path for life. Probably redefining the balance between the next-quarter figures and the innovation that you want to bring. This is a long-cycle industry. It’s not short. The physics and the intrinsic problems which are part of our business, make this something which you cannot compress into a short time that, in other businesses, can be compressed. So it’s a matter of creating a culture which also accepts the risks and the patience that you need to have for some of these projects come to fruition. Having said that, I am 56, if I were 26, just out of a master’s program or a PhD, Leonardo would be a fantastic place to start my first job. So I hope that in the crowd here in Philadelphia at Forum 75, we are also going to be able to contact and attract new talents, which have the passion and the feeling to start the long journey for some of these programs.

Q: All right. Roberto, thank you very much for sitting down with us.

Roberto Garavaglia: Thank you for coming to see us.