Imagine a world where the skies are safer. Autonomous helicopters signal a new era in aviation. Well, that vision is closer than you think, thanks to Rotor Technologies, a startup founded by MIT PhDs on a mission to remove humans from risky commercial helicopter missions. 

Autonomous Helicopter by MIT Rotor Technologies. Image: Rotor Technologies.

The journey began in 2019 when Hector (Haofeng) Xu, pursuing his PhD in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, decided to learn to fly helicopters. Nerve-wracking experiences in the cockpit ignited a passion for making helicopter flights safer. Fast forward to 2021, and Xu founded Rotor Technologies, Inc, aiming to retrofit existing helicopters with cutting-edge technology. 

Why? Because, believe it or not, flying small private helicopters can be riskier than you might imagine. While commercial passenger planes are extremely safe, fatalities occur annually in small aircraft, particularly during activities like crop dusting, firefighting, and medical evacuations. Rotor's solution involves equipping helicopters with a suite of sensors and software, making some of the most dangerous flights autonomous.

"People don’t realise pilots are risking their lives every day in the US,” said Xu. “We’re starting by targeting the most dangerous missions.”

Rotor's autonomous helicopters outshine traditional battery-powered drones, flying faster, longer, and carrying heavier payloads. By retrofitting reliable helicopter models that have been around for decades, Rotor has accelerated its commercialisation process. Demo flights are already happening around Rotor's Nashua, New Hampshire headquarters, with plans for customers to purchase these autonomous marvels later this year. 

'Some of the best engineers we've worked with' 

While other companies are diving into building entirely new vehicles, Rotor is laser-focused on autonomy. Ben Frank, Rotor’s chief commercial officer, explains, “We’re really focused on autonomy. That’s what we specialise in and what we think will bring the biggest step-change to make vertical flight much safer and more accessible.” 

Rotor Technologies Founder Xu, Left and Ben Frank. Image: Rotor Technologies.

And guess what? The MIT connection runs deep in Rotor's DNA. Founder Hector Xu, an MIT alumnus, built a team with double-digit MIT affiliates. The core tech team is composed of MIT PhDs, praised by Xu as "some of the best engineers I’ve ever worked with.".

MIT's influence doesn't end there. While Rotor's technology didn't originate in MIT's labs, Xu credits the institute for shaping his vision for technology and the future of aviation. Xu's first hire, Rotor CTO Yiou He, also an MIT alum, is a testament to the strong MIT presence in the company.

Blend of computers and motors

Rotor's innovative solution revolves around a 'fly by wire' system, a blend of computers and motors interacting with the helicopter’s flight control features. Advanced communication tools and sensors, adapted from the autonomous vehicle industry, further enhance the system. This 'remote pilot paradigm' envisions a future without pilots in the cockpit. 

Rotor's collaboration with Robinson Helicopter Company is strategic, leveraging an existing supply chain and providing customers with a familiar aircraft. The core of Rotor's solution is a 'fly by wire' system – a set of computers and motors that interact with the helicopter’s flight control features.

The R550X, Rotor's flagship autonomous aircraft, boasts impressive capabilities. It can carry loads up to 550kg, travel at speeds exceeding 200km/h, and stay in the air for hours at a time. This isn't just about making existing tasks safer; it's about enabling entirely new applications.

Rotor plans to sell a few aircraft this year and scale up production to 50 to 100 aircraft annually. While the immediate impact is on safety, Xu envisions Rotor playing a pivotal role in making daily life more autonomous and affordable, including transforming how we transport humans.

“Today, our impact has a lot to do with safety, and we’re fixing some of the challenges that have stumped helicopter operators for decades,” said Xu via a press release by MIT.

“But I think our biggest future impact will be changing our daily lives.” Imagine the possibilities of a future where flying is not just safer but more autonomous and affordable – Rotor Technologies is making it happen.