Rotor R550X: A full-size autonomous helicopter anyone can buy
Rotor Technologies is now in production on a full-size unmanned helicopter for civilian use. Based on the Robinson R44 Raven II, the R550X flies for more than three hours, at speeds up to 150 mph (241 km/h), carrying up to 1,200 lb (550 kg) of cargo.
According to Torklaw, helicopters have about 9.84 crashes per 100,000 hours of flight time. That's curiously low, given their reputation and the fact that "general aircraft" have 7.28 crashes per 100,000 hours. But still, they're notoriously tricky to fly, and there are a growing number of projects attempting to make them much easier, using simple fly-by wire joystick controls, or even simpler one-finger tablet control schemes.
Safest of all, of course, is to leave the humans on the ground altogether, and that's what New Hampshire company Rotor Technologies has been focused on from its modest hangar at Nashua Airport, about 30 miles (50 km) outside Boston. It's been flying two R22-based autonomous chopper prototypes since December last year, across nine locations in New Hampshire, Idaho and Oregon. It wrapped up its test campaign in November, having logged "more than 20 hours" of flight time.
That doesn't sound like an awful lot of test flight time to us, but either way, citing heavy demand from the agricultural sector in particular, Rotor is putting a product into production. The R550X will effectively be an enormous autonomous drone, with enough sensors and intelligence on board to fly at night and in limited visibility, including "instrument meteorological conditions."
Where a standard R44 has four seats, the R550X has nothing but a big cargo bay, allowing it to carry more than twice the "effective payload" of the standard helicopter, says Rotor. Command and control range is up to 10 miles (16 km) from a ground-based satellite communications relay, or more than 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from an airborne relay or through LTE comms.
If communications are lost – unlikely, says Rotor, since it runs six different data links simultaneously – you can choose a course of action, either getting it to loiter and wait for comms to reconnect, or having it return to base along a pre-determined path. In case of emergency, it's got a "flight termination system capable of ending a flight immediately," which frankly sounds less than ideal.
Buyers will spec it out with a range of mission payloads including cameras, gimbals, sensors and other black boxes. Probably the most popular early use case would appear to be crop spraying, in which Rotor promises cost and productivity benefits. But it's also going to get used for cargo deliveries to offshore platforms, firefighting missions and presumably other land-based delivery tasks.
How can this possibly be legal, you ask? Well, right now, Rotor is planning to deliver these aircraft in a state ready for immediate evaluation for a Special Airworthiness Certificate, which will allow them to be flown as experimental aircraft in most countries.
Eventually, the company is seeking a type certificate from the FAA, which will allow these things to ferry people around in commercial operations as well. Remarkable stuff!
Rotor hasn't nominated a price, but says it expects deliveries and the start of commercial operations to begin in 2024.
Source: Rotor Technologies