otor Technologies has unveiled the R550X autonomous helicopter that it intends to bring to market in 2024. Built on the foundation of the Robinson R44 Raven II, the R550X is the world’s largest uncrewed civilian helicopter, designed for safety-critical cargo, utility, and maritime operations that require a greater payload capacity and range than drones or eVTOLs can provide.
The heavy-lift utility helicopter can support payloads up to 1,200 pounds (550 kilograms), or more than twice the effective payload of the Robinson R44. It has a flight range of about 350 nm (650 kilometers) and a cruise speed of 109 knots (202 kph).
Rotor says it has already received letters of intent from some agricultural customers who want to use the R550X for crop spraying, and the company has begun producing the first two helicopters at its facilities in New Hampshire.
“The R550X is going to bring huge safety and economic benefits to a wide range of helicopter use cases,” said Rotor CEO Hector Xu. “Demonstrating the impact of autonomy in dangerous missions like crop dusting and aerial firefighting is the first step towards our vision for safe and accessible vertical flight.”
The R550X is powered by a Lycoming IO-540 six-cylinder piston engine that runs on 100LL low-lead aviation gasoline, although future iterations could use jet-A or sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), according to Rotor. The company plans to produce another autonomous aircraft based on the Robinson R66, and that will feature a Rolls-Royce RR300 turbine engine.
In November, Rotor announced the completion of a flight test campaign with its experimental R220Y autonomous helicopters, based on the two-seat Robinson R22, which the company modified to replace the traditional pilot interfaces with its advanced automation technology. Rotor is now commercializing its flight automation technology, starting with the R550X.
Rotor’s autonomous flight control system uses a suite of sensors and digital fly-by-wire controls to enable safe operations in any instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) and at night. According to Rotor, the flight control software can prevent common causes of helicopter accidents, such as inadvertent entry into IMC, vortex ring state, mast bumping, loss of control, and controlled flight into terrain. Communications between the aircraft and ground controllers utilize a combination of direct radio, LTE/cellular networks, and satellite links.
Rotor Technologies is still working to obtain a supplemental type certificate (STC) from the FAA for the R550X, but it is already making the aircraft available in early 2024 as an experimental-category aircraft in the meantime. Customers receiving those early deliveries will need to obtain a special airworthiness certificate from the FAA to begin operations.
Initially, the R550X will not be approved for flights with people on board, although Rotor says it is also pursuing the certification of future passenger-carrying autonomous helicopters for commercial air taxi operations.
Rotor is not the only company looking to introduce autonomous flight control systems for helicopters, although it could be the first to have an uncrewed helicopter available for commercial use. Skyryse is developing a highly automated flight control system intended to reduce pilot workload. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence specialist Daedalean has been flight-testing its autonomous piloting software systems on helicopters to prepare for eventual uncrewed operations. A handful of other companies, such as Xwing and Reliable Robotics, are developing similar systems for legacy fixed-wing airplanes.