Rotor Technologies has manufactured a full-size unmanned autonomous helicopter intended for civil applications. This model, called R550X, is based on the Robinson R44 Raven II and has a flight capacity of more than 3 hours, reaching speeds of up to 241 km/h and transporting loads of up to 550 kg.
According to Torklaw , helicopters experience approximately 9.84 accidents per 100,000 flight hours. Despite this, helicopters are known for being notoriously difficult to pilot and there are various projects seeking to simplify their operation using wired joystick controls or even simpler one-finger tablet control schemes.
In this context, the firm Rotor Technologies since December of last year has been carrying out test flights with two prototypes of autonomous helicopters based on the R22 model, covering nine locations in New Hampshire, Idaho and Oregon.
Although it completed its test campaign in November, during which it accumulated “more than 20 hours” of flight time, some might consider this test time relatively brief. The R550X will be configured as an extensive autonomous drone, equipped with a considerable amount of onboard sensors and intelligence to fly in nighttime conditions and with limited visibility, including “instrument meteorological conditions.”
R550X: a “smart” autonomous helicopter
While a conventional R44 has four seats, the R550X lacks them , instead offering a spacious cargo compartment that allows it to carry more than double the “effective payload” of a standard helicopter, Rotor claims. Command and control capability extends up to 16 km from a satellite communication point on the ground, or exceeds 1600 km with an aerial communication point or through LTE communication technology.
In the unlikely event of loss of communications, Rotor claims to simultaneously run six different data links, providing the choice between having the helicopter remain on standby until communications are reestablished or directing it back to base following a predefined route. . In emergency situations, it has a “flight termination system capable of ending a flight immediately,” although this measure may not be ideal.
Additionally, customers will be able to customize the R550X with various mission payloads, ranging from cameras and gimbals to sensors and other recording units. One of the most anticipated uses appears to be crop spraying, where Rotor promises advantages in terms of efficiency and costs. In addition, it will be used in cargo deliveries to offshore platforms, firefighting missions and possibly other land transportation tasks.
Regarding their legality, Rotor plans to deliver these aircraft in a ready state for immediate evaluation with a view to obtaining a Special Airworthiness Certificate, which would allow them to operate as experimental aircraft in most countries. In the long term, the company seeks to obtain a type certificate from the FAA, which would enable these aircraft to transport people in commercial operations. Rotor has not announced a final price, but expects deliveries and the start of commercial operations to take place this year.
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