Leonardo Future Programmes Group: The UK innovation hub for military uncrewed systems

07 May 2024

Leonardo’s Future Programmes Group was established in 2022 as a Centre of Excellence for emerging rotorcraft technologies, and this innovation hub is already proving to be a game-changer for the future of helicopter design and development. We take a deeper dive into the Future Programmes Group and its vision going forward, and how it is responding to – and informing – the future requirements of military helicopters.

Leonardo continues to be at the forefront of rotorcraft design, and is continually looking at new ways to stay ahead of the game and provide best-in-class solutions to customers. So when Leonardo established the Future Programmes Group in 2022, it did so with this position in mind, setting out to ensure that innovation remains at the heart of all that the company does.

Through the Future Programmes Group, based at the Home of British Helicopters in Yeovil, the company is exploring innovative technologies and approaches to design and manufacture, taking talented individuals from across Leonardo and promoting creative thinking to garner a new way of looking at design and development.

There are synergies with other innovation hubs across Leonardo, all of which are agile groups that focus on taking a refreshed look at how the company carries out design, development, manufacturing and delivery.

With a focus on redefining how rotorcraft are developed by using a combination of agile project management approaches and digitalisation, the group is ensuring that Leonardo is at the forefront of next-generation military helicopter design.

Proteus – The Future of UK Uncrewed Military VTOL

The initial focus for the group has been project Proteus, the UK Ministry of Defence’s (MOD) Technology Development Programme (TDP) into the future of military maritime vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) systems. Work is being carried out at pace to deliver this collaborative project alongside the MOD.

For Proteus, Leonardo and its Future Programmes Group are working alongside the MOD’s Defence Equipment and Support’s (DE&S) Future Capability Group and the Royal Navy to focus on de-risking emerging technologies and concepts.

Proteus is an evolution of the MOD’s Rotary Wing Uncrewed Air System (RWUAS) Concept Capability Demonstrator (CCD), which Leonardo has been involved in since 2013. In July 2022, Leonardo was awarded a four-year contract for the RWUAS CCD Phase 3 Technology Demonstration Programme (TDP).

Following this, in September 2023, Leonardo and the MOD unveiled a conceptually mature design at DSEI in London. A 2-3t technology demonstrator based on a single main rotor design was exhibited with the ambition for this demonstrator to take flight in the middle of this decade.

Proteus represents a low-risk concept with modularity and autonomy at its core. The multi-role air vehicle will carry out on-board decision-making at a level not seen before, and delivering for future mission successes will be at the heart of this.

Uncrewed systems can operate in high-threat situations where there would otherwise be an increased Risk to Life (RtL) in deploying a crewed platform. As a result of this ability to push operational boundaries and increase platform persistence, a refreshed approach to Availability, Reliability and Maintainability (AR&M) and modularity is a fundamental consideration for Proteus.

Because uncrewed systems are designed to deliver more persistent operations, there is a need to minimise maintenance, repair and overhaul. Sustainability is a key driver in the development of the technology demonstrator, with recycled materials and attritable airframes just two approaches being considered by the team.

The project will validate that a platform with high levels of modularity and autonomy can deliver or contribute to the delivery of effect, further pioneering the future of military aviation.

A Collaborative Approach

Proteus is not just about emerging technology, but also new ways of collaborative working.

The Future Programmes Group meets with key stakeholders, including the MOD, every quarter for system concept reviews – or SCRs – which is an open, transparent approach to cross-industry/MOD working and is a departure from the traditional industry-MOD approach to contracting.

This allows all parties to check the health of the project on a regular basis so that amendments can be made and feedback provided almost in real time, avoiding costly and time-intensive changes being made further down the line.

“We are joining forces to really explore what the art of the possible is,” says Martyn Ashford, Head of Future Programmes Group at Leonardo Helicopters UK. “By taking this approach, we can truly measure the health of a programme, and we are breeding a level of trust.”

Ashford adds: “It is truly a collaborative effort, which is another way in which Proteus and the Future Programmes Group are taking a refreshed approach to project delivery.”

Digitalisation is key to delivering this agile approach, and Leonardo is working with Siemens to adapt the Teamcenter Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) tool for the project.

A full digital twin is being utilised to simulate design outcomes, and synthetic environments are being employed to represent the integration of airborne vehicle models. The data collected will be layered with the tactical mission system, enabling the team to determine how it will shape the future autonomous capability of the aircraft.

A dynamic integration rig is also being used to test the advanced autonomous systems on board the aircraft.

An expanding number of projects

While the success of Proteus is a priority for the group, its ambitions go far beyond this key project.

The Future Programmes Group has also been involved in other key UK programmes, such as the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory’s (Dstl) Rotorcraft Concepts and Tactical Aviation in Contested, Degraded and Operationally limiting environment (RCAT) programme. This is seeking to develop technologies that will counter emerging and evolving battlefield threat systems that are coming to the fore and that will ultimately protect the MOD’s aircraft fleets.

During the four-year programme, an industry consortium led by Leonardo will explore the development of these technologies for next-generation aircraft.

The Future Programmes Group has also been exploring Air-Launched Effects (ALE), while Leonardo competed in the MOD’s Heavy Lift Challenge – two further examples of the company’s involvement in emerging requirements and the future of aviation.

What is common across the projects that the group is working on, is that they go beyond low Technology Readiness Level (TRL) research and development (R&D) efforts. They actually sit around TRL4-7, which means the technology has often been validated as well as demonstrated. They are therefore tangible efforts that go beyond research.

Although it is not the sole focus of the group, initial work has largely been on uncrewed technologies and exploring the potential that they have in future operations.

“We are hoping that autonomy and automation will become a future crown jewel for Leonardo, and through the Future Programmes Group, we are establishing ourselves as the UK hub for military uncrewed systems,” explains Ashford.

“We are accelerating the technological evolution of autonomy and automation, challenging ourselves to take a different perspective based on all of our crewed experience and applying it to the uncrewed segment, which is collectively driving a completely different way of thinking within the company.”


Leonardo is committed to delivering the most effective next generation of rotary-wing capability to its customers, and the Future Programmes Group and the talent it is fostering is key to this.

Not only is the company exploring emerging technologies that will provide operational advantage during future missions, it is also introducing a new culture within Leonardo that will lead to agile and efficient project management that has digitalisation – and success – at its core.

Welcome to Leonardo in Yeovil

Welcome to Leonardo in Yeovil

Leonardo’s association with Yeovil dates back more than a century, since the Westland Aircraft Works was established in 1915. Today, Leonardo Helicopters is based in Yeovil, with nearly 2,800 employees producing helicopters on site such as the Super Lynx 300, AW159 Wildcat and AW101 Merlin.

The Home of British Helicopters

Designed, built and supported by Leonardo in the UK, our commercial and military helicopters empower aircrews around the world to enhance operations in defence of our national security and deliver life-saving care when responding to emergency and rescue calls.

The Home of British Helicopters

Future Aviation and Uncrewed Systems

Future Aviation and Uncrewed Systems

Leonardo is leading research, development, experimentation and demonstration of emerging technologies applicable to future Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) Uncrewed Systems in order to inspire, catalyse and accelerate innovation.