In late 2019, after years of studying aviation and aerospace engineering, Hector (Haofeng) Xu decided to learn how to fly helicopters. At the time, he was pursuing his doctorate at MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, so he knew the risks associated with flying small planes. But something about being in the cockpit made Xu better appreciate those risks. After some distressing experiences, he wanted to make helicopter flying safer.
In 2021, he founded the autonomous helicopter company Rotor Technologies, Inc.
It turns out Xu’s near misses weren’t so unique. Although large commercial planes are extremely safe, people die on small private planes in the United States every year. Most of these deaths occur during helicopter flights for activities such as crop spraying, firefighting and medical evacuations.
Rotor equips existing helicopters with a suite of sensors and software to remove the pilot from some of the most dangerous flights and expand aviation use cases more broadly.
“People don’t realize that pilots risk their lives every day in the United States,” Xu said. “Pilots run into cables, become disoriented in bad weather, or lose control, and almost all of these accidents can be avoided with automation. We start by targeting the most dangerous missions.
Rotor’s autonomous machines are capable of flying faster and longer and carrying heavier payloads than battery-powered drones. By working with a reliable helicopter model that has been around for decades, the company was able to bring it to market quickly. Rotor’s autonomous planes are already flying around its Nashua, New Hampshire, headquarters for demonstration flights, and customers will be able to purchase them later this year.
“A lot of other companies are trying to build new vehicles that incorporate a lot of new technology around things like materials and powertrains,” says Ben Frank ’14, Rotor’s chief commercial officer. “They try to do everything. We are really focused on autonomy. This is what we specialize in and what we believe will bring the biggest change to making vertical flight much safer and more accessible.
Building a team at MIT
As an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, Xu participated in the Cambridge-MIT Exchange Program (CME). His year at MIT apparently went well: after graduating from Cambridge, he spent the next eight years at the Institute, first as a doctoral student, then a postdoctoral fellow, and finally as an affiliated researcher in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics from MIT (AeroAstro), a position he still holds today. During the CME program and his postdoctoral fellowship, Xu was advised by Professor Steven Barrett, now head of AeroAstro. Xu says Barrett played an important role in guiding him throughout his career.
“Rotor’s technology didn’t come from the MIT labs, but MIT really shaped my view of technology and the future of aviation,” Xu says.
Xu’s first hire was Yiou He SM ’14, PhD ’20, Rotor’s chief technology officer, with whom Xu worked during his Ph.D. The move was a sign of things to come: The number of MIT affiliates at the 50-person company is now in double digits.
“At the beginning, the core technical team was a group of MIT PhDs, and they are some of the best engineers I’ve ever worked with,” Xu says. “They are really, really smart, and while they were in graduate school, they built some really fantastic things at MIT. This is probably the most critical factor in our success.
To help Rotor get off the ground, Xu worked with the MIT Venture Mentoring Service (VMS), MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP), and the National Science Foundation’s New England Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program on campus.
One of the first key decisions was to work with a well-known aircraft from the Robinson Helicopter Company rather than building an aircraft from scratch. Robinson already requires its helicopters to be serviced after about 2,000 flight hours, and that’s when Rotor steps in.
The heart of Rotor’s solution is what’s known as a “wired flight” system: a set of computers and motors that interact with the helicopter’s flight control functions. Rotor also equips helicopters with a suite of advanced communications tools and sensors, many of which have been adapted from the autonomous vehicle industry.
“We believe in a long-term future in which there are no more pilots in the cockpit, which is why we are building this remote piloting paradigm,” says Xu. “That means we need to build robust autonomous systems on board, but it also means we need to build communications systems between the aircraft and the ground.”
Rotor is able to leverage Robinson’s existing supply chain, and potential customers are comfortable with an aircraft they’ve already worked with, even if no one is sitting in the pilot’s seat. Once Rotor’s helicopters are in the air, the startup offers 24/7 flight monitoring with a cloud-based human supervision system the company calls Cloudpilot. The company begins flying in remote areas to avoid any risk of human injury.
“We take a very careful approach to automation, but we also keep a highly trained human expert in the loop,” says Xu. “We benefit from the best of autonomous systems, which are very reliable, and the best from humans, who are really good at making decisions and dealing with unexpected scenarios. »
Autonomous helicopters take off
Using small planes to fight fires and deliver goods to offshore sites is not only dangerous, but also inefficient. There are restrictions on how long pilots can fly, and they cannot fly in bad weather or at night.
Today, most autonomous options are limited by small batteries and limited payload capacities. Rotor’s plane, named R550X, can carry loads of up to 1,212 pounds, travel more than 120 miles per hour and be equipped with auxiliary fuel tanks to stay aloft for hours at a time .
Some potential customers want to use the aircraft to extend flight times and increase safety, but others want to use the machines for entirely new types of applications.
“It’s a new plane that can do things that other planes couldn’t do – or maybe even if they could technically, they wouldn’t do it with a pilot,” says Xu. “We could also think of new scientific missions made possible by this. I hope to leave it to people’s imagination to figure out what they can do with this new tool.
Rotor plans to sell a small handful of planes this year and ramp up production to produce 50 to 100 planes per year from there.
Meanwhile, in the much longer term, Xu hopes Rotor will play a role in bringing him back into helicopters and, eventually, transporting humans.
“Our impact today has a lot to do with safety, and we are solving some of the challenges that have confounded helicopter operators for decades,” says Xu. “But I think our biggest future impact will be to change our daily lives. I’m excited to fly safer, more autonomous, and more affordable vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, and I hope Rotor will play an important role in making that happen.