This paper presents a system enabling robotic helicopters to fly safely without user interaction at low altitude over unknown terrain with static obstacles. The system includes a novel reactive behavior-based method that guides rotorcraft reliably to specified locations in sparsely occupied environments. System dependability is, among other things, achieved by utilizing proven system components in a component-based design and incorporating safety margins and safety modes. Obstacle and terrain detection is based on a vertically mounted off-the-shelf two-dimensional LIDAR system. We introduce two flight modes, pirouette descent and waggle cruise, which extend the field of view of the sensor by yawing the aircraft. The two flight modes ensure that all obstacles above a minimum size are detected in the direction of travel. The proposed system is designed for robotic helicopters with velocity and yaw control inputs and a navigation system that provides position, velocity, and attitude information. It is cost effective and can be easily implemented on a variety of helicopters of different sizes. We provide sufficient detail to facilitate the implementation on single-rotor helicopters with a rotor diameter of approximately 1.8 m. The system was extensively flight-tested in different real-world scenarios in Queensland, Australia. The tests included flights beyond visual range without a backup pilot. Experimental results show that it is feasible to perform dependable autonomous flight using simple but effective methods. © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.