Aren’t Helicopters Hard To Fly?

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No.

There is a common misconception in the UAV industry, and particularly amongst many customers just starting their research on drone technology, that helicopters are hard to fly.  Simply put, they are not at all. The reasons for this thinking are mostly based on the past, but is no longer true today.

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PhotoshipOne

Radio Control helicopters have been around for 30-40 years now, before the advent of computer radios, autopilots, or even miniature gyros.  And up until about 10 years ago, they were the only way to achieve a VTOL drone.  People have been mounting cameras on radio control helicopters for a long time, which is really where aerial photography drones got started.

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ThunderTiger Raptor 30

Back then, the helicopters were piloted under full manual control, by talented pilots with years of piloting experience.  This was only possible, because helicopters have some degree of natural aerodynamic stability.  They were lucky to have even a single-axis tail gyro.  The helicopters controlled by non-computer radios had complicated mechanical control linkages, which also took much experience to set up and repair.  Later on, flybarless heads were developed along with computerized radios, and 3-axis gyros to make the machines even more stable yet responsive, but the piloting was still fully manual, without even self-leveling control systems.

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Early experiments with drones at NOVAerial Robotics. (circa 2012)

Multirotors, by comparison, have zero natural aerodynamic stability.  No human is capable of flying a multirotor without computer assistance.  In the very early days of multirotor development, they were flown with 3-axis gyro assistance only, meaning that it required the same piloting skills as a helicopter.  However, due to the simultaneous development of multirotors and smart-phone technology, the flight control computers rapidly advanced to offer self-stabilization and then GPS assistance.  Drones were born.

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Ardupilot 1.4 installed on an RC helicopter. (circa 2011)

NOVAerial Robotics was involved early with developing this new flight control technology for helicopters.  We could see the potential of combining drone technology with helicopter platforms, to create high-performance VTOL systems.  In essence, the development of the helicopter branch of Ardupilot has piggybacked and greatly benefited from the rapid advancements in this technology for multirotors.  And we have been the lead developer of this work for several years.  We can say with conviction, that helicopters are just as easy to fly as multirotors, up to and including point-and-click flying.  In fact, we believe that helicopters are actually easier to fly, particularly in larger sizes, because the airframe is basically aerodynamically stable, the flight computer has less trouble trying to stabilize it.

So why does the myth about helicopters being hard to fly continue to exist today?  It’s largely due to unfortunate timing.  Just as smart-phone technology became adopted for use to create cheap and easily available drone flight computers, multirotors boomed in popularity, and helicopters were all but forgotten.  Quadcopters were the VTOL development test-bed of choice, because they are cheap, durable, and easy to repair.  Not because they are easy to fly, they only became that way as the technology advanced.  NOVAerial spent a lot of time and money crashing helicopters, and even we eventually started using quadcopters for our flight code testing where possible.

Now that multirotor airframe and power system development appears to have plateaued, we hope that helicopters are looked at again as end-users of this technology look for ever higher performance and capability to do new jobs never before considered.  Helicopter technology is ready now, with all of the same easy-to-fly functionality of their multirotor brothers.

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