# The Case for Large-Scale Electric Multicopters

This discussion thread is a follow-on to several conversations I've had with people in the forums who are particularly interested in the aerodynamics of vertical take off and landing (VTOL) aircraft.  Much of the dialog in these forums appropriately surrounds the mechanisms for robotic automation of VTOL aircraft, and in those contexts, I am much more a listener than a contributor.  There are some brilliant engineers, code smiths, and experimenters who frequent these hallowed pages.  The group effort to yield such a marvel as the APM platform is nothing short of astounding.

However, I think we can all agree that the primary functionality of anything that flies is related to how it generates forces to oppose gravity.  Much of the focus here has been on the control system, for a myriad of reasons.  Seemingly ignored is the aerodynamics of propeller thrust, but fairly speaking, it is unromantic as having been largely figured out 90 years ago.  In fact, here's a link to the NACA (forerunner to NASA) original paper entitled "The Problem of the Helicopter", dated 1920.  It is of interest to note that we widely applaud Sikorsky for inventing the modern helicopter, but his contribution was one of a control scheme; he gave us cyclic pitch variation for thrust vectoring coupled with a variable pitch tail rotor to counterbalance torque.

http://naca.central.cranfield.ac.uk/reports/1920/naca-tn-4.pdf

If technical papers like that make your eyes glaze over, perhaps an essential basic treatise is in order.

We go back to Newton's basic laws here, and one in particular: Force=Mass X Acceleration, or F=MA.  In order for our craft to fly, we need it to generate a force equal to and directly opposing the force of gravity.  To produce this force, we normally take the air around our craft as our readily available mass, (except in the case of the rocket and to some degree, the jet engine, where the mass is a product of combustion), and accelerate it (add to its velocity) toward the ground.  Yes, rotors, wings, and propellers all do this, and they all rely on the same principles.

However, there is another factor to consider.  While this particular law is not attributable to Newton, it is still a primary expression: energy is equal to half the mass times the velocity squared, or E= 1/2M X V^2.  So while the lifting force is linearly proportional to mass and acceleration, the energy required to perform the acceleration increases exponentially with the change in velocity.  It naturally follows, then, that taking a lot of air and accelerating it a little takes a lot less energy than taking a little air and accelerating it a lot.  This is why heavy-lift helicopters have such large rotor spans, and their technically analogous cousins, sailplanes, have long wings.  (I drive some people in the pseudo religion of ducted fan technology crazy by pointing out that all their purported efficiency gains can be had by merely making the propeller blade longer...ah, but I digress...)

In the final analysis we must be concerned about lifting efficiency.  The basic expression for us in comparing efficiencies of different designs can be simplified to merely the number of watts (power) it takes to produce a pound of thrust (mass).  Of course, we cannot simply make our rotors infinitely large and fly with no power expended at all.  There are therefore some engineering compromises which must be made in a VTOL aircraft design.  I hope you can see now why aerodynamic designers first examine the ratio of lifting surface area to the weight lifted as an indicator of potential efficiency.  In the rotary wing world, this ratio is called disk loading, and it is expressed as so many pounds per square foot of total rotor swept area.

Disk loading is a basic predictor of hovering efficiency, but it is by no means the only one.  In my next message, I'll get into evaluating basic rotor (or propeller) blade design criteria.

I hope you've enjoyed this little introduction, and yes, I do plan to eventually show that electric multicopters can be a very viable solution for large payloads compared with conventional helicopters.  However, we need to "level set" on the concepts.  Let the discussions begin.

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### Replies to This Discussion

@Gary McCray - Thank you for your kind words, Gary. When it comes to control, it's poles and zeros, baby, poles and zeros. For a time I was working on a passive variable pitch prop, but the IP protection ecosystem is truly crowded with players. When I see grossly overlapping claims between competing patents, all I can think of is the lawyers ending up with all the money. But that was just a sidebar project to the ultimate goal: manned electric VTOL fight with an entry price of < \$30K.

@Brad Hughey, I enjoy your input on this subject. As I read your last comment in this thread: "...the angle of attack range can be very limited.  This means that there's a very narrow range of speeds (advance ratios) in which such blades can operate." My limited understanding of the terms used here brings me to ask for clarifications. Are you saying that because "the angle of attack range can be very limited" this diminished the usefulness of a given propeller at a specific Reynolds number? Or, does the propeller airfoil stall and stop providing lift at a higher angle of attack?

Perhaps if we are to limit the design parameters of the multicopter that uses this propeller to fit within the narrow range of advance ratios that allow the propeller to remain reasonably "high-performance", we will have a pretty good design? When we stop expecting high flying speed (angle of attach) and focus more on hovering and modest lifting, can we expect to get a propeller that efficiently fits that criteria?

And let's be more specific about this.... let's say we need an efficient system that hovers and are willing to trade off some efficiency as the angle of attack increases, how narrow is that narrow range? Are we dealing with a craft that sinks badly at an angle of attach that propels the craft at perhaps less than 1 meter per second? Or is the issue one of just using a bit more power to maintain altitude at a rather slow speed? What if we are willing to pay the price of inefficiency when flying so that we can have high efficiency while hovering? What if 80% of the time in flight we are expecting the multicopter to perform only minor movements and primarily are asking the craft to hover? At what angle of attack does the craft stop flying altogether?

And, why are these "high efficiency" propellers very difficult to find? Is it because prop manufacturers CANNOT make them or that they have not yet been asked to make them? Is this an issue of engineering impossibility, or one of low market demand for the propellers in question? Why don't we simply ask them to make the propellers that we need?

@John C Hansen - You're asking a lot of good questions, but at the heart of the matter is the universal engineering axiom: compromises must be made. The two essential attributes of an airfoil shape are the coefficients of lift and drag. The Cl expresses how good the shape is at diverting the airflow down, and the Cd tells you proportionally how much work that diversion is going to take. It follows that for optimum efficiency you want to use the highest Cl to Cd ratio airfoil you can get. The Cd is roughly correlated to how thick the airfoil is compared with it's width (or chord). Because of the properties of air, the Cd also goes UP - all other things being equal - as the Re goes down. That's why low Re wings (and naturally, propellers) are made very thin. However, thin airfoils have the unfortunate attribute of having proportionally lower stall angles. Generally speaking, fat, well-rounded leading edges are best for stall resistance, but the worst for efficiency.

5 (!) years ago when I started this message thread, the vast majority of electric multicopter companies were using model airplane propellers because they were easy and cheap. That may no longer be the case, especially in higher-end units, but I have not been paying attention. Perhaps all is as it should be for the < = 50 LBS class.

If you're curious enough about how all the design attributes of a propeller interrelate, you should visit Dr. Martin Hepperle's excellent AeroTools site. Just download JavaProp and JavaFoil (or use it in the cloud) and play around.

mh-aerotools

John C Hansen said:

@Brad Hughey, I enjoy your input on this subject. As I read your last comment in this thread: "...the angle of attack range can be very limited.  This means that there's a very narrow range of speeds (advance ratios) in which such blades can operate." My limited understanding of the terms used here brings me to ask for clarifications. Are you saying that because "the angle of attack range can be very limited" this diminished the usefulness of a given propeller at a specific Reynolds number? Or, does the propeller airfoil stall and stop providing lift at a higher angle of attack?

(clipped for brevity)

Given the severity of the trade-offs - I have wondered if a hybrid approach might work.

A large, central rotor similar to traditional heli, (or perhaps a co-axial pair for torque neutrality). But fixed-pitch, for mechanical simplicity and the possibility of optimizing airfoil efficiency.

The primary, or sole, purpose of which is to do most of the sheer 'grunt work' of offsetting gravity, ie providing almost enough lift , or just enough, to get, and stay airborne, but no requirement to play a role in stabilization or lateral movement, thus allowing larger rotor diameters and higher efficiency, without control penalty. (though, of course, they would inevitably affect lateral movement greatly by default)

Combined with a ring of smaller, electric rotors around the perimeter of the craft. Also fixed-pitch for simplicity.

Freed of the bulk of the 'grunt work' of lifting, they could be smaller in diameter, thus conferring the benefit of responsiveness. Their primary responsibility is to stabilize, and initiate and end lateral movement.

The central, lifting, rotors could be made gas-powered, to capture the (still) much higher energy density of gas, for doing most of the lifting.

Instead of 'big (props) vs small', 'electric vs gas', 'fixed pitch vs variable', could we not have the best of all worlds in the same craft?

George

The best thread in the history of DIYDrones lives.

That Olaeris AEVA machine.... count me as being skeptical.  Looks like nothing but a bunch of renderings to me.  Coupled with half an order of magnitude improvement over anything coming before, and not a single flight test video.  Throw in some cheezy looking marketing materials and...  I've seen this story told too many times in the UAV industry.  If it didn't claim Dr. Pound's involvement, I'd be sure it was fake news.

I see so many small craft being marketed that I wonder if a larger rotor that is so much more efficient must bring with it new  technical issues not discussed in this thread.

Yes, absolutely.

It's been a few years since I read this thread.  But IIRC, it only touches on the theoretical hovering performance of multirotors, and does not delve into the complexities of the control dynamics.  Something I've become quite acquainted with over the years.

I actually have in house, a quite high performance large multirotor. It can hover for up to an hour with no payload, or lift up to 13lbs of payload for 20 minutes.  It accomplishes this with T-motor U8 motors and 28" propellers in an X8 configuration.  However, it's not a successful design, because while the flight time numbers are impressive, it doesn't fly well.

The compromises necessary to achieve that flight time, kill the dynamic performance.  28" propellers are large, heavy, and with very high inertia.  The motors, are the minimum size possible to carry the load.  They have little power overhead needed to change the speed of the propeller.  The situation is not helped, that the only propellers available, are designed to support 27.5 kg, but in this application, each are only carrying about 1.7kg.  They are therefore much heavier than they need to be.  But such is the compromise one has to make when using COTS components.

Anyway, the machine can hardly deal with 5 m/s lateral airspeed without flipping over.  I have a helicopter UAV, with similar specifications.  Only it's smaller, lighter, uses the same exact batteries, and it can fly for the same period of time.  But it can fly at 30 m/s in complete control.

I agree with Gary, that there's a limit beyond which multirotors using fixed pitch propellers, begin to have serious difficulties with control.  Only, IMO, its around 18" where it starts happening.

There's something else that I think is not talked about often.  I haven't figured it out the theoretical reason yet, just observed it in practice.  And that is the incredible amount of power increase required for multirotors to fly with lateral speed.  My helicopter hovers on about 50A, but that drops to 40A by 15 m/s due to the benefits of translational lift.

My Octocopter however, hovers on 35A, but it's pulling 80A if I hold it on the 30 degree pitch limit, and it's only doing 13 m/s.  Why?  I don't think it can be attributed purely to the increased airframe drag.  I think it is probably due to the airflow through the rotors.

We know that with helicopters at high flight speeds, some of the retreating blade is actually subject to reverse flow.  The airflow is going over the blade the wrong way, and it's destroying lift.  I suspect this effect is even greater for multirotors.  Particularly those designed for long duration, with very large, slow turning propellers.

Unfortunately, no, I don't think so.

You should get a copy of Gordon Leishman's Principles of Helicopter Aerodynamics, even if only to read the first chapter, which is a primer on the development of helicopter technology.  Many concepts like this were tried.  Actually, multirotors were tried before the standard helicopter design of today was settled on.  And many variations, some not unlike what you are proposing.

The problem is, that you are ignoring the effect of disymmetry of lift on the large main rotor during forward flight.  This would need to be countered by the stabilizing thrusters.  And if the thrusters were large enough to counter the main rotor torque during forward flight, they would also be much larger than your theoretical design would want for efficiency.  Pretty soon, you would find you had surprisingly large thrusters, and surprisingly small main rotor.

Another way you could solve the disymmetry of lift problem, would be to use articulated main rotors.  But then... since you're articulating them anyway to solve DoL, why not just go ahead and make them to cyclic control while you're at it.

This parallels the development of VTOL flight.  There were no successful designs until they instituted cyclic control

I actually designed a coaxial helicopter sort of like this years ago, and it didn't work out.  It used a fixed pitch top rotor, and a variable pitch bottom rotor with cyclic control.  In order to get good flight control, I had to increase the size of the lower rotor, while decreasing the size of the top rotor, so that the bottom rotor had sufficient cyclic authority to overcome the moment being generated by the top rotor.  But then, in order that the top rotor could still counter the torque of the larger bottom rotor, I had to add more and more pitch, until it was at the point where the top rotor had a silly amount of angle of attack and it was killing efficiency.

It started out as an interesting design, mechanically simple, but eventually evolved into a disaster as we tried to actually make it fly.

There's a lot of good reasons why the conventional helicopter design was converged on from several different directions, and then has remained largely unchanged for 100 years.  It works.

George Kelly said:

Given the severity of the trade-offs - I have wondered if a hybrid approach might work.

A large, central rotor similar to traditional heli, (or perhaps a co-axial pair for torque neutrality). But fixed-pitch, for mechanical simplicity and the possibility of optimizing airfoil efficiency.

The primary, or sole, purpose of which is to do most of the sheer 'grunt work' of offsetting gravity, ie providing almost enough lift , or just enough, to get, and stay airborne, but no requirement to play a role in stabilization or lateral movement, thus allowing larger rotor diameters and higher efficiency, without control penalty. (though, of course, they would inevitably affect lateral movement greatly by default)

Combined with a ring of smaller, electric rotors around the perimeter of the craft. Also fixed-pitch for simplicity.

Freed of the bulk of the 'grunt work' of lifting, they could be smaller in diameter, thus conferring the benefit of responsiveness. Their primary responsibility is to stabilize, and move laterally.

The central, lifting, rotors could be made gas-powered, to capture the (still) much higher energy density of gas, for doing most of the lifting.

Instead of 'big (props) vs small', 'electric vs gas', 'fixed pitch vs variable', could we not have the best of all worlds in the same craft?

George

Yes, I hadn't considered Dissymmetry of Lift.

Though, would a pair of large, fixed pitch co-axial rotors in the centre remove that problem? (albeit with attendant co-axial issues)

What I imagined would be the big problem would be the central rotors amplifying the corrective thrust changes of the outer thrusters too massively, forcing the thrusters to provide even stronger corrections in the opposite direction, and so on, in an unstable feedback loop, followed by disaster.

Analogous to the potential in current multi-rotors, I guess, just much more so.

George

Rob_Lefebvre said:

Unfortunately, no, I don't think so.

You should get a copy of Gordon Leishman's Principles of Helicopter Aerodynamics, even if only to read the first chapter, which is a primer on the development of helicopter technology.  Many concepts like this were tried.  Actually, multirotors were tried before the standard helicopter design of today was settled on.  And many variations, some not unlike what you are proposing.

The problem is, that you are ignoring the effect of disymmetry of lift on the large main rotor during forward flight.  This would need to be countered by the stabilizing thrusters.  And if the thrusters were large enough to counter the main rotor torque during forward flight, they would also be much larger than your theoretical design would want for efficiency.  Pretty soon, you would find you had surprisingly large thrusters, and surprisingly small main rotor.

Another way you could solve the disymmetry of lift problem, would be to use articulated main rotors.  But then... since you're articulating them anyway to solve DoL, why not just go ahead and make them to cyclic control while you're at it.

This parallels the development of VTOL flight.  There were no successful designs until they instituted cyclic control

I actually designed a coaxial helicopter sort of like this years ago, and it didn't work out.  It used a fixed pitch top rotor, and a variable pitch bottom rotor with cyclic control.  In order to get good flight control, I had to increase the size of the lower rotor, while decreasing the size of the top rotor, so that the bottom rotor had sufficient cyclic authority to overcome the moment being generated by the top rotor.  But then, in order that the top rotor could still counter the torque of the larger bottom rotor, I had to add more and more pitch, until it was at the point where the top rotor had a silly amount of angle of attack and it was killing efficiency.

It started out as an interesting design, mechanically simple, but eventually evolved into a disaster as we tried to actually make it fly.

There's a lot of good reasons why the conventional helicopter design was converged on from several different directions, and then has remained largely unchanged for 100 years.  It works.

George Kelly said:

Given the severity of the trade-offs - I have wondered if a hybrid approach might work.

A large, central rotor similar to traditional heli, (or perhaps a co-axial pair for torque neutrality). But fixed-pitch, for mechanical simplicity and the possibility of optimizing airfoil efficiency.

The primary, or sole, purpose of which is to do most of the sheer 'grunt work' of offsetting gravity, ie providing almost enough lift , or just enough, to get, and stay airborne, but no requirement to play a role in stabilization or lateral movement, thus allowing larger rotor diameters and higher efficiency, without control penalty. (though, of course, they would inevitably affect lateral movement greatly by default)

Combined with a ring of smaller, electric rotors around the perimeter of the craft. Also fixed-pitch for simplicity.

Freed of the bulk of the 'grunt work' of lifting, they could be smaller in diameter, thus conferring the benefit of responsiveness. Their primary responsibility is to stabilize, and move laterally.

The central, lifting, rotors could be made gas-powered, to capture the (still) much higher energy density of gas, for doing most of the lifting.

Instead of 'big (props) vs small', 'electric vs gas', 'fixed pitch vs variable', could we not have the best of all worlds in the same craft?

George

@ Rob Lefebvre - It is good to see an octocopter that has made the leap from paper to a real aircraft that flies.

The performance stats for this octocopter that you have mentioned here bring me to ask:

Why did you use motors that do not have higher capacity for work that would allow the octocopter to be more controllable?

What made you choose 18" rotors over any other size?

What 13lb (or any weight) payload would you want to lift and fly with this craft? And based on that payload, why do you want it to fly so fast that it requires a 30 degree pitch?

Why did you choose 8 rotors rather than 6? (Are these 8 rotors in 4 stacked counter-rotating pair?)

Thanks.

Cool thread! Missed it first time around. Thanks for explaining these things in a way that I could understand them. Very interesting indeed!

There was actually an Indian gentleman 5 years ago (eternity) that built a man lift capable gas powered Septo copter with one large gas powered non-variable pitch, non-cyclic control central rotor (small aircraft prop I think).

He had it chained in the middle of his patio area, I don't think he ever tried it with a person in it, but the videos I saw were not promising and looked a lot like that old movie of the guy with the 2 cone shaped umbrella things that reciprocated up and down.

There was another later smaller electric multicopter that was built using a single central rotor with 6 conventional prop motors around it that was successful.

Possibly successful is too strong a word, it did fly, but control was very marginal and the surrounding motors had to be installed at a considerable angle off of vertical to counter the torque direction of the central prop unit.

Basically it was a complete pig (apologies to pig).

Single rotor helicopters for a given size weight are almost certainly higher performance and more efficient than an equivalent multicopter.

The cost is in complexity of variable and cyclic pitch control of the rotor.

It seems like the efficiency larger equivalent rotor diameter more than makes up for the inefficiencies from pitch control in comparison to a bunch of smaller props on a multicopter.

Also because of the pitch and cyclic control it appears that helis can totally outperform multicopters in every possible way.

Multicopters main  advantage really seems to be simplicity and, with a microcontroller, ease of piloting, maybe sometimes at least safety, big heli blades can be and have been literally killers at times.

It is also possible that at some sizes / rotor diameters multis may at least sometimes have superior handling or safety in ground effect.

That helis have been so minimized in the emergence of multis as THE drone, is not based on performance or even reality.

It is based on the faddish popularity of multi's and their emergence simultaneous with decent computer automatic pilot systems.

When things settle down and the new wears off, I am very confident that helis will be back in a very significant way.

Certainly and foremost in the serious and commercial end of things.

Best,

Gary

I do get the superiority of traditional helis, and of gas power.

I think Brad's point was that fixed-pitch is not only mechanically simpler, but potentially more efficient because the airfoil can be optimised for a single pitch, which isn't possible for a rotor that has to pitch up and down so much, so rapidly. Maybe this isn't significant enough to be important (?)

I'll also assume now from the examples given that any central rotor would almost have to be co-axial - as this would negate the Dissymmetry of Lift problem, as well as the problem of the perimeter rotors having to fight the torque of the central rotor instead of mainly just stabilising horizontal attitude

I don't doubt that other configurations have not necessarily gone well, but I do wonder how many similarly bad outcomes accompanied the first attempts at conventional electric multicopters before the control issues were worked out.

Anyway, I'll remain a little curious.

George

Gary McCray said:

There was actually an Indian gentleman 5 years ago (eternity) that built a man lift capable gas powered Septo copter with one large gas powered non-variable pitch, non-cyclic control central rotor (small aircraft prop I think).

He had it chained in the middle of his patio area, I don't think he ever tried it with a person in it, but the videos I saw were not promising and looked a lot like that old movie of the guy with the 2 cone shaped umbrella things that reciprocated up and down.

There was another later smaller electric multicopter that was built using a single central rotor with 6 conventional prop motors around it that was successful.

Possibly successful is too strong a word, it did fly, but control was very marginal and the surrounding motors had to be installed at a considerable angle off of vertical to counter the torque direction of the central prop unit.

Basically it was a complete pig (apologies to pig).

Single rotor helicopters for a given size weight are almost certainly higher performance and more efficient than an equivalent multicopter.

The cost is in complexity of variable and cyclic pitch control of the rotor.

It seems like the efficiency larger equivalent rotor diameter more than makes up for the inefficiencies from pitch control in comparison to a bunch of smaller props on a multicopter.

Also because of the pitch and cyclic control it appears that helis can totally outperform multicopters in every possible way.

Multicopters main  advantage really seems to be simplicity and, with a microcontroller, ease of piloting, maybe sometimes at least safety, big heli blades can be and have been literally killers at times.

It is also possible that at some sizes / rotor diameters multis may at least sometimes have superior handling or safety in ground effect.

That helis have been so minimized in the emergence of multis as THE drone, is not based on performance or even reality.

It is based on the faddish popularity of multi's and their emergence simultaneous with decent computer automatic pilot systems.

When things settle down and the new wears off, I am very confident that helis will be back in a very significant way.

Certainly and foremost in the serious and commercial end of things.

Best,

Gary

Hi George,

At least in conventional helicopters versus multicopters it is truly no contest, for a given size - weight capacity the Helis single larger rotor is always more efficient than an equivalent multicopters multiple props, it is a simple fact that prop/rotor diameter has an overwhelming effect of efficiency versus all other characteristics.

It is true that a heli blade is less efficient than a fixed pitch prop blade of the same diameter, but if you are stuffing 4 or more smaller diameter prop blades into the same are covered by the single heli blade, the heli rotor is way more efficient period even with it's assorted losses.

So 8" multicopter propeller versus 8" helicopter rotor advantage multicopter, but 4 - 8" multicopter propellers versus one roughly equivalent say 16" helicopter rotor, no contest heli wins by a huge margin. Even with the tail rotor.

As for coaxial helicopter, there seems to be an unavoidable 10 to 20 percent loss going with the stacked rotors, but they do counteract torque and varying speed can even be used to yaw copter.

That said a conventional heli tail rotor is considerably more efficient than a coaxial setup.

Diameter is king.

BTW there was a University attempt with Coaxial center rotors and conventional multicopter prop units around it, but it did not seem to work out for them, I suspect efficiency was crap.

There have also been quite a few attempts with variable pitch single motor driven multicopters and some of those have been remarkably successful especially Curtis Youngblood's, but the mechanism is tricky and they are somewhat fragile so they tend to break a lot, but they are really cool while they work.,\

They hover perfectly well upside down and have phenomenal performance.

The simple fact is a lot of this stuff has already been tried and even analysed.

This thread is really about large (man carrying capable) multicopters and those seem unlikely to get made with truly fixed pitch propellers, the mass of the prop (and the air it is displacing) is so large that the propeller simply can't speed up or slow down fast enough to provide necessary control response times.

There are various strategies for providing an intrinsic automatic pitch control with a mechanism simpler than that found in helicopters.

Where those lead will be interesting, without it man carrying fixed pitch multicopters are just an accident waiting to happen.

Best,

Gary

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