Electric flight advocates say that with a few modern tweaks, the helicopter’s predecessor could make a return to the sky.
OF ALL THE outrageously overengineered machines James Bond has commanded over the decades, perhaps the strangest came in 1967’s You Only Live Twice, when 007 climbed into an aircraft that his friend Tiger Tanaka—and likely the audience—dismissed as “a toy helicopter.” The single-seat, open cockpit gyrocopter may not have looked impressive, but it was enough for Sean Connery’s character to bring down four full-grown helicopters (with a little help from a pair of machine guns, heat-seeking air-to-air missiles, flamethrowers, and aerial mines).
In the interceding half-century, the gyrocopter has faded further into obscurity—its cameo in 1981’s Mad Max 2 notwithstanding. But surging interest in urban aviation and a few new tech tools could combine to put the retrograde design back in the air. Among the many configurations being developed for future electric air taxis—everything from drone-like multirotor affairs to machines with both wings and tilting propellers—the gyrocopter might prove to be the most readily adaptable to the task, given its simplicity and known safety characteristics.
three gyrocopters from the 1940s
They gyrocopter lost the evolutionary race to the helicopter, but with modern tech, it could be making a comeback.GETTY IMAGES
The gyro predates the helicopter, having been invented in the early 1920s and used throughout the ’30s and ’40s, even delivering mail between rooftops in US cities. Where a helicopter uses its main rotor for propulsion and lift and the rear rotor for balance, the gyrocopter gets propulsion from a rear propeller. Because the top rotor, which provides lift, is unpowered, it only spins when the aircraft is moving, and so the gyro takes off like a plane. It’s a simple, nimble design, but the American military preferred the helicopter for its ability to hover and get airborne without a runway. And so the helicopter evolved while the gyrocopter stagnated.
“For years these things have languished as hobby aircraft,” says Mike Hirschberg, executive director of the Vertical Flight Society, an industry association. No one bothered to build them with aerospace-grade materials. Most people who fly them buy them as kits, which they put together themselves. Now, though, that’s changing. “Electric power is becoming an incredible enabler for non-helicopter configurations,” Hirschberg says. “They’ve drawn the attention of Uber and other air taxi startups.”
Gyrocopters, built to higher quality standards than ever before, are starting to gain traction in the US among private pilots, thanks to a recent FAA rule change that increases their usability in American airspace. That lets European manufacturers, including Italy-based Magni Gyro and Germany’s AutoGyro, import their modern, often carbon composite aircraft into the country.
But your slightly higher chance of seeing this curious craft in the air is just the short-term effect. In the not too distant future, you might find yourself shuttling to work in a modern spin on the old gyrocopter. Two companies in particular, Skyworks Global and Jaunt Air Mobility, are developing electric air taxis by infusing the nearly century-old design with tech that plugs the gaps that steered older users straight to helicopters.
The companies say their improved gyrocopters are among the most optimized—and most readily achievable—candidates for electric aviation. “There were a few things that are really attractive about gyros in urban air mobility,” says Skyworks’ CTO Don Woodbury, a former program manager at Darpa. “They can glide and retain full control, even in a power loss, so they don’t require things like ballistic parachutes. We think the gyrocopter can be—and needs to be—as safe as commercial aviation, which is much safer than conventional helicopter aviation.”
Skyworks’ air taxi candidate is called the eGyro, a new, yet-to-be-revealed design that will use an electric motor to pre-rotate the main rotor, allowing the aircraft to lift off vertically, and a second motor for the rear propeller.
Because most vertical-lift aircraft have high-power spikes during takeoff and landings, the batteries and motors must be custom-designed. The eGyro, though, will use adapted automotive batteries and motors. “The energy profile of a gyroplane is pretty constant,” says Woodbury, whose Salt Lake City-based company is also developing a 400 mph, turbine-powered (i.e., fuel-burning) gyro called the Vertijet for military and commercial users. “It consumes the same amount of energy throughout the flight, and that balanced consumption allows us to use the same tech cars do.”
Woodbury also cites the inherent advantage of overall simplicity. Gyroplanes don’t have to transition from vertical to horizontal flight via tilting wings or propellers, and using conventional flight controls means the FAA doesn’t have to approve any new computerized management systems. Woodbury says the company is developing two different air taxi configurations that it will choose between, and is in the final stages of selecting a manufacturing partner to build the prototype and eventual production model.
Philadelphia-based Jaunt, launched by aeronautical engineer and military aviation consultant Kaydon Stanzione, takes a similar approach to Skyworks—using a free-spinning rotor in forward flight, a wing, and rear-facing propellers—but with a few key differences. Most notably, the main rotor can be fully powered by electric motors as needed, allowing for a steady hover. Barely a month after Jaunt’s official incorporation, Uber selected its concept to be one of its six official development aircraft for its flying taxi program. (Uber is also partnering with Bell and Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences, among others.)
At Jaunt, Stanzione, who is also a former test pilot, acquired the rights to technology long in development by Carter Aviation Technologies, one of the most aggressive innovators in rotorcraft technology in the modern age. Its CarterCopter prototype reduced the speed of the main rotor in forward flight, limiting drag and enabling faster flying. In Jaunt’s new aircraft, dual electric motors power the main rotor, making it work like a helicopter when it’s time to hover or take off. “But in forward flight, we don’t need that,” Stanzione says. “And because it’s electric we also don’t need complex transmissions to send power to the rotor or to the propellers.”
The main rotor’s low speed also minimizes noise. The blades have weighted tips that increase their momentum when spinning. This helps maintain rotor speed in a power failure, creates more control during a final landing flare, and increases rotor stability at higher speeds. In cruise flight, Jaunt’s gyro should be able to top 170 mph. Stanzione says he expects to fly a prototype in 2023, and secure FAA certification within a year or so after that. It’s an optimistic projection, but he claims the path to certification is clearer since most of Jaunt’s technology is well understood, as is the case with Skyworks.
Remaining challenges for both of these systems include the same faced by all electric air-taxi manufacturers—namely how to scale up manufacturing and ensure the battery tech delivers the range and capability demanded by a commercial service. Even so, these companies hope to reach the market far sooner than the rest—maybe even scoring a role in the next James Bond or Mad Max flick along the way.