Autogyros are the duck-billed platypuses of the aviation world. They look like helicopters, operate on the same principles as airplanes, and can be pulled like a kite. And if L-3's new Valkyrie drone is any indication, there's a chance autogyros might join the U.S. Navy.
First, the principle of the machine: While an autogyro looks most like a helicopter, the rotor is instead unpowered, and provides lift much like the wings of an airplane—by being pulled through the air, in this case by a cable. (Most autogyros throughout history have been powered by onboard engines, which made them look like the awkward offspring of an airplane and a helicopter.)
The Valkyrie drone, on display at the 2013 Sea-Air-Space Expo, can't fly independently; it's towed by a ship to act as a 5,000-foot-high eyeball that can look out for other ships, aircraft, or objects on land. The towing cable is not just a tether, but also a secure, unjammable fiberoptics communication line, as well as the power supply for all sensor equipment onboard. A station inside the ship controls the drone.
Clues the U.S. military might start deploying these drones-on-leashes? Well, L-3 (a company that has worked with the Navy in the past) just presented Valkyrie at a Navy trade fair, and the drone should cost just shy of $1 million, making it a very affordable platform by the absurd scale of defense spending.
This isn't the first time a naval force has turned to autogyros for surveillance. In World War II, German submarines had a sight problem—clinging close to the surface of the water (when not diving beneath it for an attack), they could only spy from just above sea level, which offered a range of vision of about 6-8 miles. A collapsible autogyro that could be stored on board changed this, allowing the U-Boat to tow a spotter high above who could shout back observations to the crew through a telephone he carried. At maximum altitude, the pilot could see 33 miles, or between four and five times as far.
Autogyro's have long been the underrated aircraft in aviation. They can take off and land in a short space, lose power and still land safely, and are simpler and cheaper to build and maintain than a helicopter of similar size and capacity. The fact they can't actually hover seems to have needlessly stymied their acceptance and development. Hopefully the drone will attract much needed attention to autogyros and possibly bring them to the masses as affordable & safe transportation!
A sad episode in aviation history was the story of the Fairley Rotodyne.It should have been a great success.Using rotor tip thrust,it could take off and land vertically,and hover,but it didn't have the complicated gearbox of a pure helicopter:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKlOfpCw8aE&feature=player_embedded