It was materials, more than anything else, that determined the dominance of the helicopter in the 20th century. Helicopters surpassed autogyros, cyclocopters and every other variety of vertical takeoff for decades. Now, with materials and computers needed for smooth VTOL flight through non-rotored means available, Russia hopes to bring the cyclocopter back from obscurity to a useful military machine.

The announcement came June 5 from Russia’s DARPA analogue, the Advanced Research Foundation. It is formally modest, noting simply that the group will fly a demonstration cyclocopter in 2020. The demonstrator will be an uncrewed vehicle, capable of vertical takeoff and landing, and it will be powered by a hybrid engine. Most notable, though, will be the benefits of the overall shape: its cyclic propellers promise to make it quieter, lighter and more powerful than the equivalent-sized quadcopter, and all with less risk from collisions.

All of that’s great, but what, exactly, is a cyclocopter?

The cyclocopter is a flying machine that uses a series of cylindrical rotors to move through the air the way that a paddlewheel propels a ship over water. The Advanced Research Foundation notes that cyclocopters were first theorized by Evgeny Sverchkov in Russia in 1909, and explored theoretically by researchers throughout the 20th century. It’s quite the long development history.

Making all of the components light and strong enough to provide power and then hold together and generate lift and thrust daunted researchers from the dawn of powered flight, but a recent revival in cyclocopter design — influenced in no small part by the better materials, power supplies, and controllers available — was underway by at least 2006.

“Since this is an ARF project, we are seeing this agency take the lead in developing a range of unmanned applications, including new UAV designs, UAV-UGV integration, manned-unmanned teaming and swarms,” said Samuel Bendett, an adviser at the Center for Naval Analyses. “This particular design is intended for transport and monitoring, so no overt military purpose has been stated — but if the ARF proves certain advantages of that particular UAV, it could potentially be integrated into the military or internal security agencies.”

An airframe becomes a military platform as soon as the military puts a useful payload on it. And the promise of the cyclocopter is that it will be powerful enough to carry cargo and even people, with computers managing the finicky business of coordinating rotors and steering.

Researchers in Austria, China, South Korea and the United States have all in recent years demonstrated cyclocopters, in a range of sizes, including as small as palm-sized.

ARF states the design is largely free from inertial constraints on direction, offering the possibility that cyclocopters could change direction and speed in a second, without adverse effect.

“One of the applications for this small UAV would be to fly indoors, in constrained environments, perhaps with eventual use in search and rescue or even combat action,” said Bendett, a fellow in Russian studies at the American Foreign Policy Council. “No direct Russian military interest in this UAV yet, but ARF designs and work is always of interest to the MOD, so we should expect some kind of military trial in 2020 when it takes to the air.”

While a year away, the design is set for demonstration at the Integrated Safety and Security Expo in 2020. This exposition functions much like one marketed to the Department of Homeland Security, highlighting scientific and technological designs for future acquisitions and funding.

Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.

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