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A quadcopter, also called a quadrotor helicopter or quadrotor, is a multirotor helicopter that is lifted and propelled by four rotors. Quadcopters are classified as rotorcraft, as opposed to fixed-wing aircraft, because their lift is generated by a set of rotors (vertically oriented propellers).
Quadcopters generally use two pairs of identical fixed pitched propellers; two clockwise (CW) and two counterclockwise (CCW). These use independent variation of the speed of each rotor to achieve control. By changing the speed of each rotor it is possible to specifically generate a desired total thrust; to locate for the centre of thrust both laterally and longitudinally; and to create a desired total torque, or turning force.
Quadcopters differ from conventional helicopters, which use rotors that are able to vary the pitch of their blades dynamically as they move around the rotor hub. In the early days of flight, quadcopters (then referred to either as 'quadrotors' or simply as 'helicopters') were seen as possible solutions to some of the persistent problems in vertical flight. Torque-induced control issues (as well as efficiency issues originating from the tail rotor, which generates no useful lift) can be eliminated by counter-rotation, and the relatively short blades are much easier to construct. A number of manned designs appeared in the 1920s and 1930s. These vehicles were among the first successful heavier-than-air vertical take off and landing (VTOL) vehicles. However, early prototypes suffered from poor performance, and latter prototypes required too much pilot work load, due to poor stability augmentation and limited control authority.
In the late 2000s, advances in electronics allowed the production of cheap lightweight flight controllers, accelerometers (IMU), global positioning system and cameras. This resulted in the quadcopter configuration becoming popular for small unmanned aerial vehicles. With their small size and maneuverability, these quadcopters can be flown indoors as well as outdoors.
At a small size, quadcopters are cheaper and more durable than conventional helicopters due to their mechanical simplicity. Their smaller blades are also advantageous because they possess less kinetic energy, reducing their ability to cause damage. For small-scale quadcopters, this makes the vehicles safer for close interaction. It is also possible to fit quadcopters with guards that enclose the rotors, further reducing the potential for damage. However, as size increases, fixed propeller quadcopters develop disadvantages relative to conventional helicopters. Increasing blade size increases their momentum. This means that changes in blade speed take longer, which negatively impacts control. Helicopters do not experience this problem as increasing the size of the rotor disk does not significantly impact the ability to control blade pitch.
Due to their ease of construction and control, quadcopter aircraft are frequently used as amateur model aircraft projects.
Each rotor produces both a thrust and torque about its center of rotation, as well as a drag force opposite to the vehicle's direction of flight. If all rotors are spinning at the same angular velocity, with rotors one and three rotating clockwise and rotors two and four counterclockwise, the net aerodynamic torque, and hence the angular acceleration about the yaw axis, is exactly zero, which means there is no need for a tail rotor as on conventional helicopters. Yaw is induced by mismatching the balance in aerodynamic torques (i.e., by offsetting the cumulative thrust commands between the counter-rotating blade pairs).
Electric quadcopters have shorter endurance when compared to similarly sized electric helicopters because of the smaller "disk area" of the rotor blades. The longest flight time achieved by a battery-powered quadcopter was 2 hours, 31 minutes and 30 seconds. The record was set by Ferdinand Kickinger of Germany in 2016. In setting the record, Kickinger used low-discharge rate, high capacity Lithium Ion batteries and stripped the airframe of non-essential weight to reduce power draw and extend endurance. However, the lack of features and the use of a low discharge battery make the vehicle unusable as a commercial product.
Alternative power sources like hydrogen fuel cells and hybrid gas-electric generators have been used to dramatically extend the endurance of quadcopters and multirotors in general because of the increased energy density of both hydrogen and gasoline, respectively.