Operating a helicopter is a job that requires impeccable skill. Using choppers for police and emergency situations, as well in offshore environments, is dangerous. But new avionics technologies that improve communications, safety and overall pilot awareness could enhance efficiency and cut down on human error. However, helicopter operators do not always have big budgets, so increasing efficiency while keeping costs down presents a challenge across the industry.
According to Grady Dees, technical director of sales at Universal Avionics, the sales of new helicopters are growing significantly, and there is not as much attrition in the rotorcraft market today as there was just 15 years ago. According to Dees, Universal Avionics sees numerous retrofit opportunities for helicopters that are currently in service.
“We have multiple programs in the works right now for retrofit plans,” he says. “So, that is for airframes like the Super Puma, Dauphine and Bell 412 — helicopters of that class and category.”
Gabe Massey, director of engineering, CSS at Bell Helicopter, says the next few years are going to shape the future of the industry in a way “we haven’t seen in many years,” he says. “We are going to rewrite the book on what is possible with technology, innovation and performance in the rotorcraft.” Massey also believes the current marketplace is vibrant, citing forecasts that suggest it will grow to more than $24 billion worldwide by 2017. This growth is driven by demand in emerging geographies and developing markets, as well as the need to replace aging helicopter fleets.
Improved vision and situational awareness are key improvements many companies, such as Airbus and Bell Helicopter, are looking to make. Serge Germanetti, technical advisor at Airbus Helicopters, notes the company is looking to figure out the best way to introduce helmet-mounted technology into the civil rotorcraft environment, which is not easy to do. When moving from military to civil needs, the product must be adapted in two ways, according to Germanetti.
“The first [way] is to optimize the production costs to make it affordable by adapting procurement processes and design requirements to the market. The second is to make it certifiable by applying the full validation and verification process, which increases [the] system engineering aspect and the non-recurring costs of investment,” Germanetti explains.
The role of touchscreen technology is a challenge for companies like Airbus. Airbus’s EC145 T2 helicopter, which was certified and then entered into service in the summer of 2014, is equipped with a new and unique system composed of two touchscreen displays in the console to manage missions, flight plans, and radio communications, among other capabilities. The helicopter has gone through the certification process to introduce touchscreen technology in the cockpit. Airbus’s goal, now, is to have more functionality available through the screen. “We do consider it is potentially difficult to utilize a touchscreen in every particular case because of the vibration or bad weather conditions,” Germanetti says. “We are then proposing a multi-modal approach, which means that you always have the touchscreen, but in parallel we will maintain all the critical operations capable with a cursor control to allow the pilot to have a hand grip.”
Germanetti says that through enhanced displays the helicopter is moving in a more dynamic way, and using improved avionics to boost safety is a key driver. In the domain of avionics, this requires additional processing and graphic capacity. “A graphic processing unit is a major concern. The critical point is to make the solution affordable. We are targeting to introduce certified solutions for synthetic vision that can be enhanced by a real-time image of the terrain, providing a so-called Combined Vision System (CVS). Combining multiple technologies allows us to reach high levels of reliability and safety. We can expect to see more introductions of CVS type systems in the future, which is beneficial for the pilot,” he adds.
Massey agrees, noting that many other improvements are geared toward improving situational awareness. “We are making advances in Helicopter Terrain Awareness Warning System (HTAWS), enhancements in auto pilot and heads up displays, and not just from a flight performance perspective, but also pushing the envelope in manufacturing design and maintenance. Advancements in manufacturing technology are growing with a fully digital environment, advances in the application for 3-D printing for manufacturing, so getting away from static drawings and seeing things on a more visual application,” he says.
CHC Helicopter is one of the largest helicopter service companies around, operating more than 230 aircraft in 30 countries. The company has also shown interest in the benefits of Enhanced Vision Systems (EVS), having tested them in the past. CHC Helicopter ran a trial off Canada’s East Coast two years ago, with a camera mounted to the side of the helicopter and the surrounding environment displayed on a screen inside the aircraft. The testing of the system in Canada was aimed at evaluating the usability of the technology for offshore oil and gas operations. Greg Wyght, VP of operations support at CHC Helicopter, explains some of the key learnings from that trial.
“You had factors such as the vibration of the aircraft, and making sure we were able to present a picture to the crew that enhanced their mental picture. The other challenge relates to the directional attitude of the aircraft: the aircraft heading is affected by crosswinds and we don’t fly directly at the rig on short final, so the nose will normally not be directly pointed at the rig and the landing pad. The challenge for us was to make sure we could align the camera so that we could see and get a picture of the rig and landing pad,” Wyght says. “The whole point was to improve flight safety by giving the crew better spatial orientation when transitioning from the instrument portion of an IFR approach to looking at a rig in poor weather or darkness with a better mental picture of how to safely set-up the aircraft for short final to touch-down on the helideck.”
Dees believes vision is improving and, ultimately, that technologies such as Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) and Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) could merge to improve awareness even further. He believes that enhanced traffic displays are a key feature, and that TCAS has not yet been a big player in helicopters. “TCAS has matured a little bit and is more suited for helicopter use as time goes on. I think over the next few years, you will see a merger between ADS-B In technology and TCAS technology,” he says. “TCAS today provides a fairly good coarse determination of where traffic is nearby with the directional antennas that TCAS uses, but it is not very precise. As times goes by, ADS-B technology, as very precise positioning information, will make TCAS capabilities much better.”
Matt Murphey, is vice president of Veritas Aerial Solutions, a company that assists in helicopter consulting, bid specifications and training. Recently, he was in Shreveport, La., at Metro Aviation for the delivery of the fourth EC-135 helicopter to the Massachusetts State Police. His company also wrote the specifications for new helicopters for a foreign police agency, which is currently out for bid. Furthermore, he was assigned to the Texas State Police for 10 years and is particularly positioned to talk about the avionics trends in this environment. He holds an FAA Airline Transport Pilot rating in helicopters.
Murphey believes an improved video capability is a major trend in the helicopter avionics market, with police forces now wanting to downlink video to a command post. He cites activity around the Boston bombing, in which improved avionics and mission equipment made a difference in capturing the suspected bomber.
“If you look at the Boston bombing, where Massachusetts State police Air Wing officers found the suspect hiding in a boat in the backyard of a house with a [Forward Looking Infrared] FLIR camera, all of that information was downlinked live to the command post,” he says. “And if you look at the Massachusetts State Police Air Wing, all of their patrol helicopters are downlink capable. It is almost becoming a standard for many agencies. Not everyone is doing it, but a lot more people are going in that direction. FLIR cameras are getting smaller and lighter. Both L3 and FLIR Systems have newer and smaller cameras. They are always looking to put lighter equipment on helicopters.”
The move to ADS-B is also impacting what organizations are looking to do. “On the avionics side in the United States, the FAA mandate for ADS-B is coming closer and closer. The mandates are five years away, but as people are starting to purchase new aircraft and upgrade their aircraft, ADS-B is becoming much more a sooner-rather-than-later type of thing. Avionics shops in the last couple years will likely be inundated with demand for retrofits and new aircraft these days are starting to have this included. It is starting to slowly creep into the law enforcement world as well,” he adds.
It is still a very cost driven market.“There are still many, many aircraft out there that are legacy aircraft such as 206s and MD500s, and they are tweaking those aircraft constantly and trying to get as much performance out of those aircraft as they can,” Murphey adds. “The costs of certifying new aircraft are extremely expensive. Bell with the 505 and 525, and Airbus with the 175 and Agusta with the 169/189 are just examples of this. Overall, the development seems to be toward medium and heavy aircraft generally aimed at the offshore market. It is all cost-driven. Regardless of the aircraft size, everybody would like to have a helicopter that has longer [Time Between Overhauls] TBOs because that would be a great benefit to the operator. If they can amortize the costs over a longer time, an operator is going to look at it.”
Similar to the aircraft market, a crucial theme across the helicopter industry is how the next generation of rotorcraft are looking to improve connectivity to enhance operations. Companies are beginning to expand their visions of the connected helicopter of the future. Outlining what this might mean, Wyght says CHC is looking at the connected helicopter for developments such as updated routing. The company has started entertaining the idea of a wireless connection in-flight, similar to what we see across the airline industry.
“In the future, when our aircraft are flying offshore to a rig, and the customer then wants the aircraft to fly to a second or different rig, our crew can see the information related to the fuel demand and payload and upload that information to the [Electronic Flight Bag] EFB through a wireless link, whether that be via a satellite or something else,” he says.
These typical offshore flights average just over an hour long. CHC Helicopter’s IT department is looking into this capability and exploring the crew’s ability to upload changes in routing, payload and fuel-burn calculations; NOTAMs, rig and vessel positions; and even the latest OHWeb information, which can display the risk of triggered lightning strikes. Wyght calls this an “exciting step forward in flight safety and is exactly where we hope to take that in the future.”
For aircraft to come, Bell Helicopters anticipates that high-priority health and maintenance data could also be transmitted in-flight. This real-time maintenance data can make technicians aware of what parts to have available when an aircraft lands, or even allow operators to alter a route so as to bring the helicopter in closer proximity to where parts are available. This level of communication is in-line with what the United States Department of Defense is doing with the F-35 Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) program. If a potential safety issue is detected, an analyst can request more detailed data to be reviewed further before the aircraft takes off again, according to Massey.
Safety is one of the main factors underpinning the helicopter market. Increasing security is perhaps the number one challenge facing avionics technology vendors, as well as other players across the value chain. Airbus is introducing “roto-strike” alerts as a way of improving things in this regard.
“When pilots are landing close to forests or in obstructed terrain, our roto-strike alert systems define an area around the helicopter to alert the pilot of possible obstacles. In addition, analysts have identified that a growing number of incidents are due to a misrepresentation of the power needed to land. Our ongoing studies aim to provide more awareness about the limitations of helicopters to give to the pilot a real-time performance indication of what they can and cannot do in terms of maneuvers, in particular during landing phases,” says Germanetti.
Massey recalls that The International Helicopter Safety Team established a goal a few years back to reduce rotorcraft accidents by 80 percent, but the rotorcraft industry has not yet achieved that goal. He adds that this year rotorcraft safety has the rather unwanted distinction of topping the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) “Most Wanted List,” which represents the NTSB’s most critical changes needed to reduce transportation accidents and save lives, according to the NTSB — this is not a list the aviation industry wants to be on. Dees believes the new helicopters that are coming online are very well-equipped compared to what has traditionally been available, and this will help improve safety.
Overall, the move to more connected helicopters with better display technology to provide more information on the environment, which is critical for police departments, oil and gas companies, emergency services, etc. is in full swing. In this market, better avionics are king. Over the next year, we are looking forward to seeing huge improvements as new technologies become part of the mainstream helicopter environment.