Remember Doug Hughes, that former postal worker who landed on the White House Lawn in 2015? He was flying in a gyrocopter.
- A forgotten precursor of the helicopter, the gyrocopter is poised to make flying cars a reality.
- Gyrocopters had a short time in the limelight when the U.S. postal service used the aircraft to deliver mail in between rooftops.
- The gyrocopter’s simple and safe design make it a great candidate to deliver on the promise of flying cars as early as 2023.
James Bond famously flew one nicknamed “Little Nellie” in the 1967 film “You Only Live Twice.” While the gyrocopter certainly looks like it could’ve been invented in Q’s workshop, it was actually Spanish engineer Juan de la Cierva who holds that honor. He took the maiden flight on January 9, 1923 at Cuatro Vientos Airfield in Madrid. Even earlier than that, Leonardo Da Vinci left behind sketches and rough plans for a gyrocopter way back in the Renaissance — being a Renaissance man and all.
Skyworks Gyrotec DF02 (Photo: Skyworks)
Before there was a helicopter…
Considered the predecessor to the helicopter, the gyrocopter (also known as “rotorcraft”, “gyroplane” and “autogiro”), actually takes off like a plane, needing a runway to get airborne. Once airborne, the aeronautics diverge from both plane and helicopter. Instead of using engine power to spin rotor blades like a helicopter does, the gyrocopter engine spins a back propeller that pushes the aircraft forward. As the gyrocopter moves, air naturally spins the rotor blades, creating lift.
In an article on Wired, Eric Adams suggests the overlooked little aircraft just could be the flying car of the future, due to its simple design and safety. Since a gyroplane’s propeller doesn’t rely on the motor to spin, if there’s an engine failure, the gyroplane will gradually descend down to the ground.
In the 1930’s-40’s, the postal service used the gyrocopter to deliver mail between rooftops. Adams suggests that because the American military preferred the maneuverability of the helicopter, which didn’t need a runway and could hover, the gyrocopter got sidelined, relegated to enthusiasts and hobbyists.
Safe and simple design
But the little gyrocopter could be ripe for a renaissance. Inspired by the gyrocopter’s design, Jaunt Air Mobility and Skyworks Global are developing electric air taxis that will give this old technology new life. In his article, Adams quotes Skyworks’ CTO Don Woodbury, a former program manager at Darpa.
“There were a few things that are really attractive about gyros in urban air mobility,” Woodbury said. “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 is in development on an air taxi called the eGyro, which will use an electric motor to pre-rotate the main rotor, allowing the aircraft to lift off vertically without a runway, and a second motor for the rear propeller. Though not revealed yet, the design incorporates adapted automotive batteries and motors.
Jaunt Aviation, launched by Kaydon Stanzione, an aeronautical engineer and military aviation consultant, has a design similar to Woodbury’s, but includes a few notable differentiators. In Jaunt’s aircraft, the main rotor can be fully powered by electric motors as needed, for a steady hover. Stanzione says his craft should be able to top 170mph.
Uber liked Jaunt’s concept so much that barely a month after Jaunt incorporated, the rideshare company selected it to be one of its six official development aircraft for its flying taxi program. Stanzione said he expects to fly a prototype in 2023, with the goal of FAA certification in about a year after that.
As we turn to an electric transportation future, the gyrocopter, with the help of modern technology, could be a safe, simple and efficient way to get where we want to go in an environmentally friendly manner. It also sounds like a hell of a lot of fun too!
Just don’t fly it onto the White House lawn — Doug Hughes spent 120 days in jail for his stunt.
WHY THIS MATTERS
The gyrocopter could finally provide the answer to the lament, “Where is my flying car?” Electrification and electronics have the potential to democratize our air spaces, and eliminate many of the challenges on the ground.