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Rotor targets agriculture, firefighting and cargo transportation with R550X uncrewed helicopter

By Gerrard Cowan | December 8, 2023

Estimated reading time 6 minutes, 31 seconds.

Rotor Technologies has begun production of its first two R550X uncrewed civilian helicopters, with the company identifying opportunities in markets such as agriculture, firefighting, and cargo transportation.    

Rotor Technologies says its new R550X platform is the largest uncrewed civilian helicopter on the market. Rotor Technologies Photo

The company officially unveiled the R550X project in early December 2023, describing it as the largest uncrewed civilian helicopter on the market. The platform is based on the Robinson R44 Raven II, and is designed to lift heavy loads of up to 550 kilograms (1,200 pounds), the company stated, with no pilot onboard. It has a flight time of over three hours and a top speed of 150 miles per hour (240 kilometers per hour), Rotor Technologies stated.   

As of December 2023, production of the first two units was underway at Rotor’s facilities in New Hampshire. These are being developed for use in agriculture, with operators in that sector signing letters of intent (LOIs) with Rotor.  

Halsey Schider speaks with Hector Xu, CEO of Rotor Technologies, on The Helicopter Podcast.

The aim is for commercial operations of the R550X to begin in the U.S. in 2024, with international operations coming in later years. However, the company has conducted a series of flying tests on the R220Y, a technology demonstrator based on the Robinson R22 platform, said Ben Frank, Rotor’s chief commercial officer.   

The R550X offers long-range vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) capabilities beyond current unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and eVTOLs. However, the system was not designed to directly challenge or replace such platforms, Frank told Vertical.   

Rotor Technologies has begun production of its first two R550X uncrewed civilian helicopters, with the company identifying opportunities in markets such as agriculture, firefighting, and cargo transportation. Rotor Technologies Photo

Rather, “we think that autonomy and remote piloting are going to be transformative technologies that are going to unlock exciting new use cases for aircraft,” he said. By basing the system on an already tried and trusted helicopter, the company believes it offers a range of technological and regulatory advantages in the uncrewed space, he said. 

“The R550X is based on a safe, certified and trusted airframe that exists today,” he said. “The pathways to operate the R550X commercially already exist. We can retrofit it with our technology and immediately provide a safety and productivity benefit.”  

The R550X features a range of sensors and digital flight control systems that enable it to operate safely and autonomously in challenging operating environments, including at night and in limited visibility. Rotor’s software can prevent common causes of accidents, the company stated, such as inadvertent entry into instrument meteorological conditions or loss-of-control.   

The sensors include LIDAR, RADAR, and multiple types of cameras, Frank said, though some customers have requested other sensors. The platform uses a fly-by-wire system, with the essential aim of “translating the technology that’s been used in large transport aircraft into helicopters.”  

Rotor said its helicopters would only operate in unpopulated or sparsely populated areas. Rotor Technologies Photo

In the short term, Rotor sees the greatest potential in aerial work in sectors such as agriculture, firefighting and cargo transportation, Frank said, though in the very long term, there may be potential for passenger flight, depending on technological and regulatory evolutions.   

However, it is a “human-in-the-loop system, and will remain so for the foreseeable future,” Frank stressed. “The technology allows a human to safely pilot this aircraft from the ground, but there is still piloting involved,” he said, noting that the human-in-the-loop demands are focused not just on flying but on areas related to the particular mission, for example, whether or not to apply chemicals to crops.   

Additionally, he said the helicopters would only operate in unpopulated or sparsely populated areas. “Our goal is to improve the safety profile for humans — we don’t want to carry people, at least in the first years of the program, and we’re not going to fly over populated areas.”  

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