It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane!
It’s the History of the Quadcopter!
Like so many modern day technologies, quadcopters are actually way older than you might think. In fact, they are almost as old as manned flight itself. The idea of a helicopter is even an ancient one, with people like Da Vinci conceptualizing them in drawings long before it was remotely feasible. The first ever quadcopter was probably built in 1907 by the French Breguet brothers, Jacques and Louis.
It was known as the Gyroplane No. 1, could accommodate one person, and had a gross weight of 1274 lbs. It was powered by a 46hp engine and flew at two feet above the ground for at most one minute.
This was not the most auspicious way to start, but then the first flight at Kittyhawk by the Wright brothers wasn’t much better, if we have to be honest.
Unlike the Wright brother’s plane however, the quadcopter design was unstable. At the time it wasn’t quite clear how exactly the quadcopter would be controlled, but at least it would fly.
Building It Up
For a devout few, the quadcopter design showed too much promise to be given up. In 1920 the Oehmichen No. 2 proved to be the first stable quadcopter. It reportedly made more than a thousand test flights and could eventually have a flight endurance of several minutes.
The Oehmichen actually set the first ever FAI helicopter record, covering 390 yards. It was able to complete a circular course of 0.6 miles as well.
Another contemporary of the Oehmichen was the de Bothezat helicopter, which came about two years later in 1922. It had the rather awesome name of the “Flying Octopus”, which is also a great band name, incidentally.
Like other quadcopter designs of the time, the Octopus used additional rotors for pitch and yaw. It was reliable enough and a good proof of concept, but like the Oemichen, it was extremely mechanically-complex. In fact this is something that we forget today, but there weren’t any electronics to control anything. It was all down to human brains and stuff like gears, shafts, and pulleys. Trying to do a quadcopter like that was basically impossible.
The Quad Comes of Age
In 1956 they still couldn’t really put a computerized flight controller onboard, but technology had progressed nonetheless. The Convertawings Model A Quadrotor was the first aircraft to prove the quadcopter design. How? Where previous attempts had kept the four lifting rotors spinning at the same speed and steered with additional rotors, the Modal A used collective pitch rotors and varied the thrust of different motors to maneuver. This was way less complicated. In principle there was nothing wrong with the model A, but no one seemed interested in ordering them, so the project was canned.
Welcome to the World of Tomorrow!
OK, so even today full-scale manned quadcopters and other multi-rotors are still not a reality. The closest thing we have are tandem rotor helicopters like the Chinook, or tiltrotor VTOL craft like the Osprey.
The quadcopter design has, however, taken off in a big way when it comes to UAVs or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. These days you can buy a quadcopter for as little as $50 all the way up to a few hundred thousand dollars.
They do everything from delivering packages to finding lost hikers, or simply just providing a fun diversion for bored city slickers.
The future seems to be decidedly drone-filled at this point, with new jobs being invented for these flying robots on what seems like a daily basis.
The day of the passenger carrying quadcopter may yet be upon us. A company in China recently unveiled plans for a single-passenger electric quadcopter that can be called like an Uber cab. The passenger does not pilot the craft as it is completely autonomous. This sounds very futuristic and also terrifying.
A proper military quadcopter may also be on the way in the form of the Bell Boeing Quad Tiltrotor. This is a proposed four-rotor version of the V-22 Osprey. This is set to be a very big girl, sporting 50-foot rotors and a fuselage the size of a C130 cargo plane.
More Is Better
Now that we have the computer technology to make things fly that really should have no business being off the ground, it’s likely that crazy, engineering types will be strapping more and more rotors onto un-aerodynamic things – which I think is awesome and should happen more often. I’m still holding out for a quadcopter to bring me my drink. Yes, it should pilot itself; drinking and flying never mix well.