Leonardo Helicopters is hopeful that early next year it can begin development work on a clean-sheet, rotary-wing unmanned air system (RWUAS) for service entry in the mid-2020s.
The manufacturer's Yeovil, southwest England facility is already engaged with the UK Ministry of Defence on the second phase of a programme to develop operational concepts for RWUAS.
Commenced in early 2017, the process is due to conclude in March next year, and the manufacturer is hopeful that a follow-on phase III contract will be forthcoming.
The phase II work is examining the "requirements for a future system", John Ponsonby, managing director of Leonardo Helicopters UK, told the Future of Military Rotorcraft conference in London on 11 September.
"We are developing a number of conceptual designs," he says. "There is a compelling case for future investment. It would be game changing in terms of cost and military capability."
Based on the performance of its SW-4 Solo optionally piloted helicopter during tests, notably in last year's Unmanned Warrior exercise, Leonardo believes a complement of RWUAS could offer significant cost savings over a fleet of manned helicopters twice as large.
Acquisition and direct support costs would be cut in half, while manpower and training requirements would fall by one-third, says Ponsonby. Despite these reductions, endurance would increase four-fold, he says.
Simon Jones, Leonardo Helicopters head of UK government business, says the company favours a clean-sheet design due to the cost- and weight-saving potential though not having to include crashworthy structures and complex cockpits.
"A lot of weight [in a manned helicopter] is about protecting the people inside it," he says.
Speaking at the same conference, Rear Adm Jon Pentreath, chief of the UK's Joint Helicopter Command, says in the future, both the "find and fire" missions currently carried out by manned helicopters could instead be performed by RWUAS.