January 25, 2024

Rotor's Autonomy Manifesto

Hector Xu
CEO, Rotor

Rotor was founded by the MIT team that built the first ever ion-propelled airplane. We're working to create another “Kitty Hawk” moment, this time for the coming era of autonomous aviation. 

Rotor’s R550X is one of the world's first commercial uncrewed helicopters. It combines autonomy with a proven and reliable helicopter platform, the Robinson R44, to offer a set of capabilities never seen before: vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL), a 1/2 ton payload, no pilot onboard, and affordability for commercial operators. It’s the first step towards a drastic reimagining of the future of aviation.

Rotor's Mission

Computers are becoming very capable. Tasks that I grew up believing to be the sacred domain of humans, such as image recognition and generative creativity, can now be performed by computers. Breakthroughs in computer vision and sensor fusion have been applied to self-driving cars to achieve autonomous driving capabilities that match or exceed human drivers, even in complex real-world environments.

In aviation, excitement about AI and autonomy has been comparatively muted. In commercial jets, high levels of cockpit automation have already enabled a remarkable level of safety, affordability, and scale. Reducing the number of pilots in an airliner from two today to one or zero in the future will be a cost-saving increment, not a fundamental transformation.

The transformative opportunities for autonomous aviation are instead in the light aircraft that are yet to meet their full societal potential. In helicopters and small airplanes, used primarily for training and recreation today, autonomy will improve safety and affordability to the levels needed for mass transit. And in the new generation of quiet and sustainable VTOLs designed for air taxi, autonomy will be necessary for commercial viability and scale.

Rotor exists to accelerate the adoption of autonomy in aviation and to enable a future for light aircraft that will be radically safer and more accessible than today.

The Case for Autonomy

“Advanced air mobility” (AAM) is a vision for the next great era of flight: quiet and sustainable VTOL aircraft to provide on-demand air taxi services like an Uber, highly efficient small airplanes serving thin-haul regional routes like a bus service. Flying cars and buses enabled by novel technologies and business models could transform our daily lives – and this dream has attracted billions of dollars of investment.

We are already seeing new AAM business models in operation, like Blade's ride-sharing app. And we’re on the cusp of seeing the first new eVTOLs, like the Joby S4, enter service. But a number of fundamental questions remain unanswered: How will the spotted safety record of small aircraft meet the safety standards required of mass transit? How will commercial operations achieve economies of scale when pilots account for up to 50% of direct operating costs? How will scale even be possible under current models of voice-based communications and visual traffic avoidance that are prone to human error?

We believe that autonomy is the answer to all of these questions. It is the missing ingredient that will transform safety, cost, and scalability.

  1. Safety. 70% of fatal accidents in light aircraft today are caused by human error. Advanced sensors and digital flight controls can eliminate almost all of these, while data-driven health and usage monitoring systems (HUMS) can help predict and prevent the mechanical failures that account for the other 30%.
  2. Cost. In a commercial helicopter operation today, the cost of a pilot runs in the hundreds of dollars per flight hour. Autonomous aircraft can be supervised by a small number of human operators on the ground, reducing pilot costs by an order of magnitude.
  3. Scalability. Today, no more than a few dozen aircraft can simultaneously enter a single air traffic control (ATC) area – to prevent controller overload. More-autonomous aircraft that can communicate automatically and instantaneously with a digital ATC will enable much higher traffic densities.

Only in a more autonomous future will we be able to unlock the safe, low cost, and scalable air mobility systems that we dream of today. And without autonomy, most AAM concepts – whether it is for urban air taxis or for regional air mobility – are unlikely to meet their full potential.

Rotor's Difference

Our vision of autonomous aircraft operating in automated airspace systems feels very far away today. The changes needed to achieve it – in regulations, in the air traffic system, and in the industry at large – feel almost intractable. The continuing struggle of eVTOL developers to bring their products to market is a stark reminder that aviation is a highly-regulated and capital-intensive industry that doesn’t easily bend to the will of startup pitch decks.

Rotor’s approach emphasizes technical feasibility and near-term commercial viability. Our initial goal is to build a product that (1) is commercially-viable even at low volumes, (2) can operate in the present regulatory regime, and (3) meaningfully builds towards the future autonomy end state we know we need.

The result is the R550X, an autonomous aircraft that is:

  1. Uncrewed, because we believe that taking pilots out of the cockpit is the single most important paradigm shift towards a future autonomous end state;
  2. Remote-operated, because human supervision is necessary to ensure safe operation;
  3. A retrofit, to make development faster and cheaper, and penetration into the fleet more immediate;
  4. Certified in the Experimental Category, to take advantage of exemptions for uncrewed aircraft that tackle dull, dirty, and dangerous missions away from populated areas;
  5. VTOL, to operate independently of airport infrastructure (e.g., for agriculture and maritime) and to offer vertical lifting capabilities (e.g., for firefighting and logistics).
  6. Helicopter, because they’re VTOLs ready to use today; and
  7. Based on the Robinson R44, because it offers the highest “bang for buck” in a helicopter available today, with a large installed fleet available for retrofit, and supported by a dynamic OEM.

Our path to early revenue is simple: fly life-saving and productivity-enhancing missions with an uncrewed VTOL under existing regulations. Our pragmatic go-to-market strategy is quite different from more ambitious approaches to autonomy that seek to integrate into the national air space or to carry passengers from day one.

Our priority is to show that uncrewed aircraft can be technically feasible, economically viable, and positively impactful in the real world. The journey of a thousand autonomous aircraft begins with a single R550X.

The R550X

The best use cases for the R550X are missions where pilots today are exposed to significant amounts of risk, like crop dusting and aerial firefighting. If you have a “dull, dirty, or dangerous” mission for a VTOL aircraft, please reach out to us – we’d love to help.

We’re also excited to introduce the idea of “piloting-as-a-service”, the concept behind Rotor’s Cloudpilot offering. For operators who have low pilot utilization, paying for Rotor to fly remotely by the hour is a great way to solve both labor and logistics challenges related to employing pilots in-house. So, if you’re a helicopter operator struggling to hire or retain pilots, we may also be able to help.

In many other respects, we're letting the tiger sleep. The R550X will not integrate with the national airspace system, but instead operate in the fringes: at low altitudes, shielded by infrastructure, and in segregated corridors. It will be operated remotely by a certified commercial helicopter pilot and it will not be rated to carry humans. We expect that the long-run demand for the R550X to be between 50 and 100 aircraft per year, rates that we can ramp up to by 2026 thanks to the established supply chain for R44 helicopters available for new build or retrofit.

The R550X will not make pilots redundant and cannot replace most R44s or other helicopters; instead, it offers a unique value proposition to a specialized set of customers. Industry upheaval is not the goal – yet; the R550X is Rotor’s first product, designed to quickly achieve standalone commercial viability while taking a pragmatic step towards a more autonomous and better future.

And it’s exactly the R550X’s lack of technical and regulatory ambition that should make it so exciting — because it’s the only autonomous helicopter you can buy in 2024.

Published On
January 25, 2024
About Rotor

Rotor develops autonomous vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft to make vertical flight radically safer and more accessible.

Learn more about Rotor.