LONDON — Leonardo and Northrop Grumman have joined forces to pursue the nascent vertical-takeoff-and-landing unmanned systems market.

The two companies have worked together on multiple efforts since the mid-1990s, but formally decided to enter a strategic partnership focused on global opportunities for uncrewed rotorcraft systems, representatives announced Wednesday at the biennial DSEI technology conference in London.

Combining Leonardo’s longtime rotorcraft experience and Northrop Grumman’s prowess in the aeronautics and unmanned systems realms, the two entities plan to collaborate on aircraft design, system architectures, and payload optimization for future battlespace architectures, with the goal of unveiling a new design sometime in the future.

The goal is to pursue opportunities in both the military and civilian sectors, said Nick Chaffey, Northrop’s chief executive for the UK, Europe, and the Middle East.

“Today we take our object further. Today, we begin to look at the future of autonomous, unproved rotary systems,” he said.

Discussions around forming a more strategic partnership have been in the works for about two years, with those discussions getting more serious around six months ago, Chaffey told reporters at the company’s booth on the conference exhibition floor.

The team did not provide a timeline for when a clean-sheet design might be presented, but noted that the collaboration between the two companies could begin with their existing product lines, depending on what potential customers are looking for.

“There are products in both portfolios at the moment that can benefit from each other’s technologies, and therefore we can improve our joint position within the market,” said Steve Allen, vice president of strategy and innovation at Leonardo Helicopters UK. “We are also working on products that are not in the public sphere yet, but we hope to bring forward.

“There is absolute potential for clean-sheet designs, because we don’t see this as a short-term, single product alliance. We see this as a long-term partnership,” he continued.

The team will also leverage existing collaborations in the electronics domain for this partnership, said Nick Whitney, managing director for Leonardo Helicopters UK. Last month, the two companies signed a long-term pricing agreement for pointer-tracker technology for the U.S. Army’s Common Infrared Countermeasures (CIRCM) program, he noted.

Leonardo and Northrop are also competing together to build a maritime, uncrewed aerial system for the Royal Australian Navy, under the latter’s SEA129 Phase 5 program.

“In short, this partnership will enable a strong and connected approach to existing -- as well as next-generation -- technologies from two leading global aerospace companies,” Whitney said.

While the team expects to leverage each company’s fortes there is “flexibility” within the arrangement to divide the technological workshare between companies on a case-by-case basis, the leaders said.

Executives remained tight-lipped on specific opportunities they plan to pursue under the new partnership. Chaffey told reporters there are designs “on the table now,” and that the team has engaged in “some competitions around the world,” based on conversations they have already had with potential customers about new requirements.

Leonardo and Northrop have spoken with multiple governments and organizations at the DSEI conference, Allen said. “Announcements will come in due course in terms of those specifics,” he added.

When asked, Allen noted that Leonardo and Northrop Grumman officials would be present at NATO’s industry day for the alliance’s Next-Generation Rotorcraft Capability (NGRC) program in Luxembourg next week. He caveated that by noting the program, which would provide NATO with a next-generation, optionally crewed helicopter for combat search-and-rescue and other missions, is still in its infancy stage.

Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News' European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2020.

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