From Leonardo da Vinci to the HPC: the history of the helicopter presented in a podcast with the participation of Carlo Cavazzoni

18 January 2023

In a podcast in the Corriere della Sera series entitled “Geni invisibili”, meaning “unknown geniuses”, Massimo Sideri discusses the milestones in the history of the helicopter, from Leonardo’s Atlantic Code to Enrico Forlanini’s invention, and analyses the evolution of the technology permitted by use of the davinci-1 supercomputer with Carlo Cavazzoni, Leonardo’s Senior Vice President of Cloud Computing and HPC.

Carlo Cavazzoni introduces a podcast on “The Helicopter” in which Massimo Sideri, science and technology correspondent and editorialist with Corriere della Sera, analyses the aircraft’s long and complicated history. Starting with Leonardo da Vinci’s “aerial screw”, considered a precursor of the concept underlying the revolution in flight that was not to take place until several centuries later, and proceeding to discuss the essential contribution made by HPC in the development of helicopter designs. The podcast also features contributions from the curator of the Leonardo da Vinci Museum of Science and Technology, Fiorenzo Galli.

Leonardo is definitely not an “unknown genius”, but it was not until 1759, three centuries later, that little-known Russian inventor Michail Lomonosov designed an object much like a helicopter. From that time on, experiments, projects, demonstrations, patents and attempts to rise into the air followed one another, including the work of French pioneer D’Amecourt, who called his prototype the “hélicoptère”, giving the aircraft its name. But the true “unknown genius” of this story is Enrico Forlanini, a member of the military engineering corps and son of the great physician Carlo Forlanini. In the show held in the Public Gardens in Milan in 1877, he presented his “steam helicopter”, the first “heavier-than-air object” to rise off the ground, now displayed alongside a reconstruction of Leonardo’s aerial screw at the Leonardo da Vinci Museum of Science and Technology. Forlanini offered further proof of his ingenuity with more inventions, including the hovercraft.

Mentioning Sikorsky and Count Agusta, Sideri describes how helicopter technology has evolved down to the present day as he enters the room housing the davinci-1 HPC in the company of Carlo Cavazzoni, who is in charge of the Leonardo supercomputer. “Not many companies can count on an infrastructure like this. Only a handful of enterprises in the world have the know-how to manage, run and update this kind of infrastructure. The HPC, like the cloud, is an infrastructure that has to be kept competitive, over time, with the frontier of semiconductor technology”. The supercomputer is essentially used to process data and conduct simulations. This permits forecasting with a view to improving a product, such as a helicopter, which is already in the design phase.

Cavazzoni then goes on to speak of digital twinning, another step on the path to creation of today’s hi-tech products such as helicopters, radar systems and airplanes. He concludes by emphasising the importance of teaching children to develop code at an early age, “training them” to use a kind of logical reasoning that is not encouraged by other learning schemes.

Sideri closes his podcast with a mention of the “Ingenuity” drone, which is, in essence, a helicopter for exploring Mars, and landed on the red planet in 2021 during NASA’s Mars 2020 mission.