Recently, there has been growing interest in developing unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) with advanced onboard autonomous capabilities. This paper describes the current state of the art in autonomous rotorcraft UAS (RUAS) and provides a detailed literature review of the last two decades of active research on RUAS. Three functional technology areas are identified as the core components of an autonomous RUAS. Guidance, navigation, and control (GNC) have received much attention from the research community, and have dominated the UAS literature from the nineties until now. This paper first presents the main research groups involved in the development of GNC systems for RUAS. Then it describes the development of a framework that provides standard definitions and metrics characterizing and measuring the autonomy level of a RUAS using GNC aspects. This framework is intended to facilitate the understanding and the organization of this survey paper, but it can also serve as a common reference for the UAS community. The main objective of this paper is to present a comprehensive survey of RUAS research that captures all seminal works and milestones in each GNC area, with a particular focus on practical methods and technologies that have been demonstrated in flight tests. These algorithms and systems have been classified into different categories and classes based on the autonomy level they provide and the algorithmic approach used. Finally, the paper discusses the RUAS literature in general and highlights challenges that need to be addressed in developing autonomous systems for unmanned rotorcraft. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.