A helicopter rotor is the rotating part of a helicopter which generates an aerodynamic force. The helicopter rotor, also called the rotor system, usually refers to the helicopter's main rotor which is mounted on a vertical mast over the top of the helicopter, although it can refer to the helicopter's tail rotor as well. A helicopter's rotor is generally made up of two or more rotor blades, although several earlier helicopters had a rotor with a single main rotor blade. The main rotor provides both lift and thrust, while the tail rotor provides thrust to compensate for the main rotor's torque.
Tail rotors are generally simpler than main rotors since they require only thrust control. A simplified swash plate is used to control collective pitch. Two bladed tail rotors include a teetering hinge to compensate for asymmetry of lift.
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Before the development of powered helicopters in the mid 20th century, autogyro pioneer Juan de la Cierva researched and developed many of the fundamentals of the rotor. Cierva is credited with successful development of multi-bladed, fully articulated rotor systems. This type of system is widely used today in many multi-bladed helicopters.
In the 1930s, Arthur Young improved stability of two bladed rotor systems with the introduction of a stabilizer bar. This system was used in several Bell and Hiller helicopter models. It is also used in many remote control model helicopters.
The rotor head is a robust hub with attachment points for the blades and mechanical linkages designed to control the pitch of the blades.
The pitch of main rotor blades is varied throughout its rotation in order to control the magnitude and direction of the thrust vector. Collective pitch is used to increase or decrease rotor thrust perpendicular to the axis of rotation. Collective pitch controls the magnitude of the thrust vector. Blade pitch is varied during rotation to effectively tilt the rotor disk and control the direction of the thrust vector. These blade pitch variations are controlled by the swash plate.
The swash plate is two concentric disks or plates, one plate rotates with the blades while the other does not rotate. The rotating plate is connected to individual blades through pitch links and pitch horns. The non-rotating plate is connected to links which are manipulated by pilot controls, specifically, the collective and cyclic controls. Rotors with more than two blades have two dedicated connections, which make the inner swash plate turn. In two bladed rotor systems the blades take over this task.
The swash plate can shift vertically and tilt to some degree. Through shifting and tilting, the non-rotating plate controls the rotating plate, which in turn controls the individual blade pitch.
Fully articulated rotors: During the development of the autogyro, Juan de la Cierva built scale models to test his designs. After promising results, he built full size models. Just prior to takeoff, his autogyro rolled unexpectedly and was destroyed. Believing this to have been caused by sudden wind gusts, Cierva rebuilt it only to suffer an almost identical accident. These setbacks caused Cierva to consider why his models flew successfully, while the full-sized aircraft did not.
Cierva realized that the advancing blade on one side created greater lift than on the retreating side due to increased airspeed on the advancing side which creates a rolling force. The scale model was constructed with flexible materials, specifically rattan, so the rolling force was absorbed as the blades flapped and compensated for dissymmetry of lift. Cierva concluded that the full size steel rotor hub was far too rigid and introduced flapping hinges at the rotor hub.
Flapping hinges solved the rolling problem, but introduced lateral hub stresses as the blade center of mass moved as the blades flapped. Due to conservation of angular momentum, the blades accelerate and decelerate as their center of mass moves inward and outward, like a twirling ice skater. Cierva added lag-lead, or delta hinges to reduce lateral stresses.
Stabilizer bar: Arthur M. Young found that stability could be increased significantly with the addition of a stabilizer bar perpendicular to the two blades. The stabilizer bar has weighted ends which cause it to stay relatively stable in the plane of rotation. The stabilizer bar is linked with the swash plate in such a manner as to reduce the pitch rate. The two blades can flap as a unit and therefore do not require lag-lead hinges (the whole rotor slows down an accelerates per turn). Two bladed systems require a single teetering hinge and two coning hinges to permit modest coning of the rotor disk as thrust is increased. The configuration is known under multiple names, including Hiller panels, Hiller-system, Bell-Hiller-system, and flybar system.
In fly by wire helicopters or RC models, a computer with gyroscopes and a venturi sensor can replace the stabilizer. This flybar-less design has the advantage of easy reconfiguration.
The blades of a helicopter are long, narrow airfoil cross-sections with a high aspect ratio, a shape which minimises drag from tip vortices (see the wings of a glider for comparison). They generally contain a degree of washout to reduce the lift generated at the tips, where the airflow is fastest and vortex generation would be a significant problem. Rotor blades are made out of various materials, including aluminium, composite structure and steel / Titanium erosion shields along the leading edge.
The tail rotor of a helicopter is mounted on the tail of a traditional single-rotor helicopter, close to perpendicular to the main rotor. It is primarily used in order to counteract the yaw motion and the torque that a rapidly turning disk naturally produces. The tail rotor in simple terms is a propeller that pushes the body of the helicopter in the opposite direction of the main rotor, preventing loss of control.
There are two major variations to traditional tail rotor design concerning the placement of the tail rotor and the surrounding structure. Some companies such as Eurocopter enclose the rotor within a fantail assembly. Such design - called fenestron - protects the tail rotor from foreign object damage better than the traditional outer mounted design but complicates the design of the tailcone to account for the enclosed mechanisms.
In some more recent helicopter designs, the tail rotor has been mounted tangential to the furthest back point of the top rotor. That is to say that it looks much like an old propeller plane, only at the back of the helicopter instead of the front of a wing. In these new designs the rotor spins in a direction opposite to the top rotor (i.e. counter-clockwise if the rotor spins clockwise and vise-versa). This in effect, cancels the spin and has the added benefit of producing forward thrust.
Most, if not all, dual-rotary helicopters do not use tail rotors, instead, the design of the two main rotors is such that they spin in the opposite directions of each other, thus each cancels out the torque and yaw produced by the other. This has been researched in the past and has been incorporated into some European designs.
Sikorsky Aircraft, a UTC subsidiary is currently researching the merger of these two concepts with a dual rotor helicopter with a rear rotor to provide additional forward thrust and a respective increase in speed and operating range. First flight of a prototype aircraft, the Sikorsky X2 Demonstrator is expected to be accomplished by the end of 2006
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