AFWERX backs Piasecki Aircraft with $37m contract


Piasecki Aircraft Corporation has been awarded a multi-year contract by AFWERX and the US Air Force Research Laboratory worth $37m.

The award, which forms part of its Strategic Funding Increase (STRATFI) programme, will help to fund Piaseck’si flight demonstration of its Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES) tilt-duct VTOL unmanned aerial system and its hydrogen fuel cell propulsion technologies.

“The STRATFI programme plays a critical role in advancing emerging American technologies and we are thrilled to receive this significant investment,” said John Piasecki, CEO of Piasecki Aircraft. “This new funding will allow us to demonstrate ARES’ unique tilt-duct configuration, which enables seamless transition between hover and fixed-wing forward flight — a technological leap that would address critical aerial challenges faced by the US military.”

The STRATFI test program will also fund the demonstration of zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell propulsion technology for VTOLs, including Piasecki’s forthcoming PA-890 compound helicopter. 

“Demonstration of the PA-890 would be a world-first for electric aviation and would usher in a new era of clean vertical flight. While R&D work on these projects began several years ago, this new funding will rapidly expand our ability to deliver these radically new vehicles to customers and partners across the military and commercial sectors,” said Piasecki.

The firm’s ARES is a modular multi-mission tilt duct VTOL vehicle that can be operated uncrewed or with an optional manned flight module. The aircraft is designed with a small landing footprint which makes it suited to operations in complex terrain including ship landings, combat logistics support and expeditions. The ARES has also has a number of reconfigurable payload setups to suit varying missions. 

Piasecki has built an ARES demonstrator in partnership with Lockheed Martin with funding from DARPA. It expects to flight test by the end of year with the help of follow-on funding from the US Air Force and Army which is allowing Piasecki to build in a fly-by-wire system with the help of Honeywell. 

On its hydrogen system Piasecki is collaborating with ZeroAvia. The US-based hydrogen-electric propulsion firm will integrate, once developed, its High Temperature Proton Exchange Membrane (HTPEM) hydrogen fuel cell technology into Piasecki’s PA-890. 

Val Miftakhov, founder and CEO, ZeroAvia, said: “Higher temperature fuel cells are a critical technology to delivering improvements in specific power and unlocking truly clean propulsion for larger fixed wing aircraft, but they will also enable rotorcraft and VTOL applications. Working together on this project with a company of Piasecki’s heritage and expertise in rotorcraft, with US Air Force backing, is a hugely exciting step in delivering on our vision of hydrogen-electric engines in every aircraft.”

The PA-890, a VTOL aircraft, is expected to be the first zero-emission hydrogen-powered compound helicopter. The slowed-rotor winged helicopter is intended for use in a variety of missions including medical emergencies, on-demand logistics and personnel transport. According to Piasecki, the PA-890 will bring up to a 50% reduction in direct operating cost and reduced noise compared with today’s helicopters.

Earlier this year, Piasecki acquired the former Lockheed Martin Sikorsky Heliplex facility in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. It has plans to transform the 219,000sqft state-of-the-art facility into an advanced R&D and testing centre for VTOL and UAS vehicles. The facility is expected to provide jobs for about 400 workers by 2028.


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