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How Cyclic and Collective Pitch Works on RC Helicopters

Cyclic collective pitch is used by RC helicopters to control flight. In a previous article, fixed pitch helicopters were explained. Fixed pitch helicopters change their direction and altitude by changing the rate at which their rotors spin, and sometimes by using a tail rotor. Finer control can be achieved by changing the pitch of the rotor blades. By changing the pitch of the blades, the airflow from them can be changed, moving the helicopter in different directions. Changing the pitch of the blades is more efficient than just increasing the speed of the blades. In this article, the mechanics of variable pitch helicopters will be explained.

How The Swashplate Works on RC Helicopters

Swashplate AnimationIn order for the rotor blades of an RC helicopter to change pitch, there must be a way to transform the linear motion of a servo arm into the rotating motion required by the rotor blades; this is accomplished by using a swashplate. The swashplate is a mechanical device, consisting of two plates mounted to the main rotor shaft. One of these plates is attached to the servo controls and the helicopter body, and the other rotates with the helicopter rotors. As can be seen in the picture, the swashplate transforms the motion of the servo arms into motion of the upper plate. Each rotor is connected to the upper disk of the swashplate, and so they will move as the bottom disk moves. The horizontal rods visible in the picture represent where the servo arms would connect, the number of rods included depends upon the individual helicopter. Every RC helicopter that can change the pitch of its rotor blades will have a swashplate attached to its main axial. There are many different implementations of swashplates, but each follows the same basic design shown in the image. In a conventional RC helicopter, two servos are used to control the swashplate. One servo is used to control the horizontal motion (bank) and the other is used to control the forward and aft motion (pitch).

RC Helicopter Collective Pitch – Climbing and Descending

When a RC helicopter needs to climb or descend, it uses collective pitch. When the command is given for the helicopter to climb, the servos push the entire swashplate upwards. This has the effect of simultaneously increasing the pitch of all the rotor blades. When the pitch is increased, the rotors grab more air as they move, and so lift produced is increased. This increase in lift occurs evenly, so the helicopter does not turn. When the helicopter needs to descend, the swashplate is lowered in the same way. This will decrease the amount of lift produced from the rotor blades.

RC Helicopter Cyclic Pitch – Attitude Control

Changing the bank and pitch of the helicopter requires the swashplate to tilt. This is accomplished by tilting the lower disk of the swashplate. When the lower disk is tilted, the upper disk will also tilt, while it is spinning. The main rotors, which are attached to the upper swashplate will also tilt. In order for this to happen however, each rotor must be given time to “fly up”, or “fly down” to the location where it needs to be. This is accomplished by using pitch links, which provide each rotor with the information of where it needs to go, before it has to be there. The net effect is that the blades move cyclically, and tilt the motion of each rotor in one direction. The swashplate can be tilted in any direction, so the helicopter can change its pitch and bank in proportion to the commands given by the transmitter.

RC Helicopter Cyclic Collective Pitch Mixing (CCPM)

Model RC helicopters can use more than two servos in combination to control the motion of the swashplate. Software running on the rc transmitter (radio) tells each servo how much to move to achieve the desired motion of the RC helicopter. Each linkage to a servo is represented by a silver rod in the above picture. All of these rods are placed equidistant from each other. A swashplate mix refers to the number of linkages attached. For example: a two linkage swashplate would be controlled by two servo rods, placed 180 degrees apart from each other. A three linkage swashplate would use a 120 degree swash plate mix. The swash plate in the picture above has 6 control rods, and so it would use a 60 degree swash plate mix. Most RC helicopters will use a swashplate with between two or four control rods. The largest RC Helicopters use 4 control rods, because of the extra strength they give the swashplate mechanism.

In Summary

  • Every RC Helicopter that can change the pitch of its blades has a swashplate.
  • The swashplate consists of two disks, one which spins and one that does not.
  • The bottom swashplate does not spin, and is connected to the servo control rods.
  • The swashplate consists of two disks, one which moves and one that does not.
  • To rise or descend, the rotor blades move collectively
  • Pitch and bank require the swashplate to move cyclically.
  • Pitch links control the position of each blade.
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