US start-up Rotor Technologies is confident that customers will next year be operating its R550X platform – an autonomous version of the Robinson Helicopter R44 piston-single.
Rotor Technologies recently announced the conclusion of an initial test campaign using a pair of modified examples of the smaller R22 – which it calls the R220Y – during which the helicopters accumulated over 20 flight hours and more than 80h of engine run time.
“It has confirmed, I think, that we are on a technology path to scale this up to the R550X next year and have it as effectively an autonomous aircraft,” says chief commercial officer Ben Frank.
Buoyed by the success of those tests, the company has already begun stripping out the first R44 for conversion at its site in Nashua, New Hampshire.
Detailed design work for the modification is under way, says Frank, which sees the seats, pilot controls and console removed from the platform to be replaced by a full fly-by-wire system, a flight-control computer and communications equipment.
In addition, Rotor Technologies installs an array of sensors – including LIDAR, Radar, and electro-optical/infrared cameras – allowing the helicopter to build up a clear picture of its surroundings.
“It creates a level of intelligence and a level of situational awareness,” says Frank.
While the company sees broad appeal for anyone performing “hazardous missions”, including firefighting, initial customers for the R550X are drawn from the agricultural sector.
“In 2024 our first customers are going to be using the R550X for crop dusting. We are working with a small group of partners next year for service entry and taking pre-orders for delivery after that,” says Frank.
Rotor Technologies is now sizing its conversion facilities to match anticipated demand, which will “keep us busy for 2024 certainly and most of 2025”.
“In the long run we will build as many as the market is interested in buying,” he adds.
Test activities with the R220Y will continue through the remainder of the year as the firm integrates updated hardware, while the first flight of the R550X is expected in early 2024.
During the tests to date the R220Y performed manoeuvres including autonomous hover and forward flight, as well as longer-range missions, although the helicopter remained in direct line of sight of a ground control station.
At service entry the R550X will still require a ground station to allow “supervision” of the mission by a human in the loop – a feature considered vital for the initial roles envisaged for the platform, notably firefighting where communication with personnel on the scene will need to be maintained.
The R550X designation is a nod to the helicopter’s original manufacturer, its 550kg (1,210lb) payload and its experimental classification.
Initial operations will be conducted in segregated airspace under US regulations that permit the use of experimental-category aircraft for certain missions, but in the longer term Rotor Technologies will seek a supplemental type certificate for the conversions.
Ultimately, it sees potential for the R550Y to be used for the transport of cargo or passengers as the autonomous technology – and the regulatory framework supporting it – matures.
Although to begin with the used market will provide the airframes for conversion, Rotor Technologies is exploring with Robinson whether a line-fit option could be offered.
Frank says the company has received “strong support and collaboration” from the OEM, which will be important “to supply the full number of [R550Ys] that we want to”. That could also see expansion to the turbine-powered R66 if there is customer demand.
However, talks continue with other rotorcraft manufacturers, he says, noting the technology is “quite scalable to other platforms”.
In fact, the system has already flown on another rotorcraft, which Franck describes as a “type 1 helicopter” which has “20 times the payload” of the R44.
Frank does not disclose the identity of that platform, but under US fire service classifications, type 1 helicopters include civil variants of the Boeing CH-47 Chinook and Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane.