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Saturday, March 1, 2008

Heli-Expo Show Day: Eurocopter Eyes New Avionics Scheme

James T. McKenna

EUROCOPTER IS DEVELOPING A new protocol for avionics displays aimed at helping pilots better focus on flying aircraft and further reduce the risk of being involved in an accident.

The effort seeks to consolidate and simplify the display of critical systems and performance data so a pilot "can concentrate on his environment 90 percent of the time and on his helicopter 10 percent of the time," Eurocopter CEO Lutz Bertling told Rotor & Wing.

The avionics enhancement is part of Eurocopter’s multi-faceted initiative to improve the safety of its products that includes fielding greater training capabilities and enhanced aircraft systems and hardware. Eurocopter (Booth 631) undertook the initiative in part to contribute to an industry-wide effort to cut the helicopter accident rate 80 percent by 2016.

"The question is what can we do in the product so safety for the passenger is higher than it is today," Bertling said.

The avionics work targets the fact that human error contributes to 80 percent or so of helicopter accidents. It will build on the principles of the Vehicle and Engine Multifunction Display and First Limit Indicator used on Eurocopter’s Ecureuil family. The First Limit Indicator summarizes indications of engine speed, T4 temperature, and torque.

The new work is focused on improving the display of information to the pilot. Eurocopter has a team of specialists in man-machine interfaces-the interaction of an operator and a machine’s indications and controls-working on the project with test and development pilots. One element that likely will be incorporated into the new design, Bertling said, is a set of interchangeable, touch-screen displays for the instrument panel. He said the new systems should reach market after 2009.

Eurocopter also is enhancing the training available for its aircraft.

"We’re making a major investment in training capability," Bertling said. "We are speaking with a lot of operators and now investigating where is best in the world to invest in simulation capability."

In addition to its HeliSim center at Marseille-Provence International Airport in southwest France, Eurocopter is opening an expanded training center at its American Eurocopter subsidiary in Grand Prairie, Texas and operating an EC135/145 full-motion simulator there and in Germany.

Even without the new developments, Eurocopter has more than enough to keep it busy.

The manufacturer protected its position as a top producer of commercial and civil helicopters with its deliveries last year. It reported record sales results for 2007, surpassing its previous record year of 2006.

"Our deliveries increased by more than 100 units in comparison to 2006," Bertling said.

It delivered 488 civil and military helicopters last year, and reported revenue of more than 4 billion euros. Of that number, 2.34 billion euros (56 percent) came from serial helicopter production, 1.39 billion (33 percent) derived from customer services, and 440 million (11 percent) came from development and other activities.

Eurocopter booked orders for 802 new aircraft in 2007, which it valued at 6.58 billion euros. It said its backlog by the end of December 2007 exceeded 13 billion euros, a record.

Of the 2.34 billion euros in revenue from serial helicopter production, Eurocopter said, 51 percent (1.19 billion) came from civil and para-public sales and 49 percent (1.15 billion) came from military sales. Bookings in 2007 were split 56-44 percent between military and civil products.

Bertling said 68 percent of revenue was from exports, a mark of the success of the company’s strategy of expanding its activities to emerging markets.

The greatest demand in 2007 was for the AS350/355 Ecureuil/Fennec/EC130 family. Orders were placed for 325. That was followed by the EC135, with orders for 134. Eighty-eight orders were placed for the BK117/EC145 family, and 73 for the EC120 Colibri. The Dauphin/Panther/EC155 family netted 47 orders last year, and the Super Puma/Cougar EC225/EC725 family logged 22. (The balance of 2007’s 802 orders were for NH90s and 18 Tigers.)

Ramping up production remains the order of the day for Eurocopter, Bertling said, "and will remain so for some time to come."

It experienced delays of up to four weeks at the beginning of 2007 in part because "the supply chain had not fully trusted the figures coming from us." This year has started better.

Given the current backlog, "clearly, our delivery numbers in 2008 will have to be even higher," Bertling said, adding that the company has seen growth in all market segments.

"The oil and gas industry clearly takes the lead," with high prices for natural resources driving more exploration and extraction in remote areas, "thus increasing the need for new helicopters," he said. "Hot on the heels is the VIP/corporate market." Law enforcement remains a strong market for Eurocopter, he said, as do the EMS, utility, tourism, and military markets.

The need for a continued ramp-up carries the challenge of keeping customers satisfied that Eurocopter is supporting their aircraft and operations.

"Our top priority is to keep on focusing on customer satisfaction," Bertling said. He describes that challenge in terms of "reachability and reactivity," that is, the customer’s ability to reach the right persons in Eurocopter’s support network and the speed and effectiveness of that network’s fulfillment of the customer’s needs.

While Eurocopter is pressing on with research and development efforts, Bertling said, the company’s objective is to field technology that customers can use. "The target is that customers can make more money or fly more missions more safely with Eurocopter aircraft."

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