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Mould breaking in the helicopter industry
The news circulating within the helicopter industry of late suggests divergent visions for the future of rotary operations. Airbus Helicopters is hoping its medium twin H160, the first of its H Generation, will be key to success over coming years.
Read this story in our March 2018 printed issue.

The news circulating within the helicopter industry of late suggests divergent visions for the future of rotary operations. Airbus Helicopters is hoping its medium twin H160, the first of its H Generation, will be key to success over coming years. It is pitched at a section of the market dominated by Leonardo's AW139. Certification and service entry are due in the first half of 2019 and the company expects to produce 40 to 45 helicopters a year by the early 2020s.

Other OEMs are looking to multirotors or pilotless aircraft, and some are taking time to upgrade their existing production line to take advantage of improving technologies. But these approaches may not necessarily be mutually exclusive; it could be entirely possible for future designs to sit compatibly within the marketplace and this is where cooperation between the aviation and unmanned aerial industries to formulate safety regulations would be crucial.

To better understand these emerging designs and technologies, and also to take a look at the current state of the market, we asked EBAN readers what the leading issues and opportunities are, and they offered a surprising variety of opinion.

If the average lifespan of a heli-copter is at least 20 years, those in a VVIP fleet tend to turn over more frequently as owners appreciate the new avionics and interiors of the latest machines. Luxaviation Helicopters has access to a fleet of around 60 units thanks to its September 2017 acquisition of UK helicopter management, charter and training company Starspeed, which retains its identity, leadership and personnel, and its partnership with French VIP charter company Azur Hélicoptère. Its medium to heavy size helicopters operate mainly in Europe, the lighter fleet in South Africa. Common mission types are VIP/corporate transport plus offshore and VIP operations to yachts. In this field helicopters tend not to be upgraded or modified, owners sell and acquire a newer model. CEO Charlotte Pedersen says: “I am specifically interested in the H160 from Airbus and the Bell 525, but also the AW609 tiltrotor. The AW169 is also one of my favourites, I generally love all new developments.”

As the world gets more HNWIs she sees a greater number of helicopters being used for VIP transport, to avoid the traffic issues that come with increasingly busy and condensed cities. And in those countries where road transport options are not safe business travellers who need to access remote locations find helicopter travel an excellent solution.

Pedersen notes that helicopters are widely used in Africa and the Middle East and, much as with general aviation, activity is closely aligned with economic and social development. As both are developing regions, socially and economically, helicopter usage is expected to grow alongside their social and economic development. She says: “A recent Wealth-X report stated the number of UHNWIs is going to grow by approximately 30 per cent over the next five years. Aviation, particularly helicopters, is a huge interest to this demographic so with this growth we can expect a substantial increase in VVIP helicopter usage, especially in the Middle East.”

Reducing the average age of a fleet

At the moment Romania-based C&I Corporation has one Eurocopter EC120, a single engine helicopter used for between 300-400 corporate transport flight hours a year. Flight operations director Eugen Tatu would like to go larger, perhaps to a twin engine or a more powerful single engine, ideally an EC130. He particularly likes the look of the clean-sheet design Kopter SH09, and would also like to upgrade to a glass cockpit as it would greatly reduce pilot workload.

He says it is vital for the industry to have new types coming to the market as it encourages turnover of ageing stock. The latest models are equipped with improved technology, not only in terms of safety and compliance; features such as ADS-B, surveillance technology, datalink and ground proximity devices are gaining traction in helicopter operations. “All of these will provide benefits, as will increasingly sophisticated autopilot technologies,” he says. Night vision systems interest him particularly but the rules lag behind the technology; certain helicopters can only fly during the day, not at night. “There are a lot of systems for night imagery and forward looking thermal imaging infrared cameras, but for the moment regulations do not take account of these developments so there is a big gap emerging,” he adds.

With more customers asking for greater capacity he feels the AW139 will lose out to the H175 with its range and volume. The S-92 can seat more passengers but there is a huge weight difference that comes with it. Because the H175 is light, the payload is really high. “Our EC120 is always full,” Tatu says. “Every seat is taken along with the normal baggage load.” And as it can hold itself still and auto land, so the workload on the pilot is a lot less.

France-based leasing company H2I Helicopters has a fleet of 16 single engine turbine helicopters all bought when factory new. There are nine H125s, the oldest from 2012 and the newest built in 2018; five AS350 B3+ ranging from 2008 to 2011; one 2008 AS350 B2; and one 2003 EC120. These are used by operators for aerial work such as transportation of fire personnel and water bomber helicopter mission,; the creation and maintenance of power lines and for heliski.

The company is currently growing its fleet to 20 aircraft, all equipped with mirror and cargo hooks but kept light so as to carry as much additional weight as possible. As to the future, fleet manager Olivier Neuville does not reckon unmanned operations will impact hugely on lift missions, where a pilot has a role to play. As for city operations, he says it would be difficult to put unmanned helicopters into cities, amid existing ambulance and police air traffic. And he questions whether people are ready yet to fly in an aircraft without a pilot.

The cold facts of Swedish air ops

Västerås-headquartered HeliAir Sweden's operations are affected when the weather is extremely bad as it impacts on visibility. At the moment there are around four more hours of light than there were a month ago so operational time is extended, and that is always welcome after a harsh winter when it is extremely cold and days are very short.

The company is currently in the process of selling its MD and Bell helicopters and transitioning to an all-Airbus fleet. CEO, accountable manager and pilot Aram Rubinstein has been busy taking delivery of new H125s, the next one is on the boat right now from Canada.

The company has several bases in Sweden and specialises in aerial work and filming with its own Cineflex systems. The cold affects its day-to-day work because everything has to be heated up, which means it takes a little longer to get going. Thus complications and costs increase, but less so than in the past. It can take up to 30 minutes longer to get off the ground in these conditions depending how iced-up the helicopter is; each part needs to be properly heated up, including the transmission and the battery. Rubinstein says: “During the summer months there is no need to get dressed up like an astronaut just to get out in the helicopter. Life is much easier when it's 15 celsius and above. But pilots and technicians are used to it; there's nothing we can do about it.”

Addressing some cost differentials

Nova Systems UK, a provider of flight test and capability assurance services in the civil aerospace, defence and government sectors, has an H135 that goes out to a variety of organisations. The company does testing on its own aircraft for STCs and equipment, which is a variable market, so to keep the helicopter ticking over it is also chartered out to ATOs and AOCs. “Although there are not a lot of H135 AOCs,” says chief of strategy and marketing Simon Sparkes. “While reasonably buoyant, activity here is not booming.”

He continues: “The H135 is a light twin, and I think we are in an interesting market because of price sensitivity. Regulations nowadays mean that light twins need to be more highly equipped in order to go into the right airspace.” So from the company's ownership perspective, the capital costs of putting all this equipment on board, including ADS-B Out, mean having to make capital expenditure that is then passed on.

UK owners have also been affected by the drop in the value of sterling versus the euro. All of the support costs for the H135 or AW109 are in euros, which brings baseline support costs up. So there is an interesting dichotomy at the moment in that the helicopter charter operator market is not willing to bear those costs, which are going up hundreds of pounds per hour in terms of operational overheads, yet they still want aircraft that are able to operate in all weather, or into London, or wherever the top level equipment is needed. “It's a bit of a sticking point at the moment,” Sparkes continues, “and I've had to say to one of our charter operators that they need to pay more; we cannot make a loss on our DOCs just because of supposedly price sensitive end user charter customers.”

Sparkes remarks upon the distinct difference now between light twins such as the AW109 and H135, and the AW139 and EC145 models, which are probably out of reach for most private owners because the capital and DOC differential is big and because their oversight and operating costs are much higher too. These types are not for the wedding-party or going-to-the-races type customer; they attract HNWIs rather than short- term lease customers. The larger aircraft come off the factory floor already equipped with the latest technology so they are not affected so much by changing regulation. “It is pulling up the bottom end as people operating in London have those equipment expectations,” he adds. “So high net worth individuals are being pulled away from the light twin market by necessity.”

For its part Leonardo is in the process of launching the AW609 tiltrotor, combining the speed and range of a turboprop with the take-off and landing capabilities of a helicopter, which is great for mission flexibility. Agreements for around 50 units have been signed worldwide but FAA certification has been delayed following an in-depth review of the programme aimed at incorporating mission-specific modifications prior to certification. MD Gian Piero Cutillo says that certification is now anticipated for the end of 2019, with deliveries beginning immediately after: “The next couple of years will be a very important phase, not only technologically speaking to reach maturity and certification, but also to evaluate together with customers how we can really make and penetrate the market.” The company has, however, just signed an agreement for two units with Era Group, which will see the AW609 enter service in the US in 2020.

UK-based Starspeed is expanding its fleet and the types of aircraft it operates. “We are just about to get the AW139 in a couple of months, which is a good one for us because there are not many in the charter market in the UK right now,” says managing director Dr Simon Mitchell, a former Sea King pilot with the Royal Navy who has also flown offshore oil and gas and onshore London Metropolitan Police missions. He notes that the latest generation aircraft are much easier to maintain and have lower operating costs. And since European states have made a big effort to enable low level IFR instrument flying, the capability of the AW139 is increased and it becomes more usable.

In terms of new products he says there is nothing that changes what the helicopter essentially does: what is coming in is making it do its job better and more easily. He feels that is where the real improvement is being made, by all the manufacturers.

He says Airbus Helicopters may be slightly behind the curve and that the H160 is late to market, which might have consequences for it. But he is positive about the H145, a genuinely new aircraft. “I think there has been a bit of 'sitting on laurels' going on, and not bringing products in quickly enough, and there has also been a reliance on legacy aircraft for too long, a lot of manufacturers have fallen in to that trap.” He says that Leonardo has probably got itself into the best position, but is not taking advantage of this as it is encountering problems in delivering. Mitchell's view is that it should be in a stronger position than it is, even though it is doing well. He adds: “They are not maximising their potential to take market share. As a company they are failing to deliver quite the level of success they should be.” And as for Sikorsky, it appears to him to be distancing itself from the commercial market, apart from keeping the S-92B going. “Maybe there is a future for it because the presidential aircraft is going to have lots of enhancements on it. But other than that, unless there are some secret works going on somewhere, Sikorsky seems to be making a decision to leave the commercial market entirely.”

Everyone is after the same small slice of pie

Sikorsky remains committed to its medium to heavy aircraft and has said it cannot justify investing in a product that does not differ substantially from what is already available in the marketplace. Given the oil and gas downturn many applaud its decision to wait before introducing more platforms into a market that has so many idle aircraft. VP of commercial systems and services Dana Fiatarone says: “From my perspective, you are better off having either a heavy or medium platform that you know rather than having to spend capital and invest in stand up logistics, new pilot training and maintenance training, and all that goes with having a new aircraft type in the fleet, just to perform a narrow band of mission segments.”

Kopter, formerly Marenco, has taken around 30 firm orders for the SH09, which is on schedule for entry into service during 2019 following EASA approval that year. Another 19 orders are conditional on obtaining certification and more than 120 are the subject of letters of intent. But the total number of SH09s produced in 2019 will be a single digit figure according to CEO Andreas Löwenstein, rising to around 20 in 2020. The second prototype single-turbine helicopter has demonstrated flying characteristics and perfor-mance that underpin its multi-role capability. Prototype 3 is currently undergoing preparations before continuation of the flight test programme.

Bell's 505 has been certified by 20 countries to date and deliveries are ongoing to Latin America, Europe and Asia Pacific. There has been interest from the corporate transport and tourism sector because of its low cost of operation, but also the global military training market and utility, police and public service segments.

Bell claims the 525 Relentless is the most technologically advanced commercial helicopter in its class. The second and third flight test vehicles have generated about 290 flight hours, and about 200 hours have been flown since return to flight in July 2017. The OEM is celebrating the news that Bristow Group, a continuing member of its customer advisory panel, has committed to provide continued customer input and support to the development of the 525 search and rescue configuration to meet customers' operational requirements.

Starspeed's Mitchell adds that Bell could be the other serious player for commercial aircraft, but it is missing an important product: “Its 525 will be brilliant but expensive at well over $20 million, and it isn't in that crucial five tonnes size that is currently dominating the market.”

UK-based SaxonAir Helicopters operates the single-piloted AW109 series. Head of ground operations and charter manager Max Randall says: “A lot of our customers require two crew, but the second one is effectively a passenger; they don't fulfil any function other than providing the comfort of knowing a second crew member is in the front.” All personnel on board are fully type rated on the aircraft with differences training and fit all standard procedures including an operator's conversion course. Anyone that the company puts on the flight deck of its aircraft, regardless of whether they are fulfilling a function or not, has been through the same training that a full salaried crew member has.

Randall adds that the company is always looking to improve safety. SaxonAir operates the latest version of the 109, the GrandNew or SP, so it is now possible to have full multi-crew airline standard cooperation between the two crew members, which is only available to operators of the SP. This is facilitated by modern systems such as four axis autopilot.

SaxonAir carries out urban missions from London Heliport at Battersea and dropping in and out of London on a daily basis. It flies many a customer from their private jet at London Stansted, for example, and into the capital. With no plans to buy new it intends to focus on the current models in its fleet, which includes three of the newest aircraft in the onshore charter market, and upgrade where possible.

The potential of pilotless ops to disrupt the industry

Some of the infrastructure and regulatory practicalities surrounding pilotless operations are quite significant and may take time to resolve, but Starspeed's Mitchell sees this development as something that could change the aviation picture in the longer rather than shorter term. “It's not a priority at the moment; there are too many other things going on,” he says.

There are a number of eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) aircraft from different manufacturers in the concept or design phase, including compound helicopters; lift and cruise; tilt-wing; and tiltrotor. But certification issues and safety implications aside, research by Boeing seems to show that eVTOL operations could perform on-demand urban air taxi missions at a fraction of the cost of a helicopter, potentially offering savings of around 26 per cent.

German air taxi developer Volocopter has performed a manned flight in its fully electric single- place experimental multicopter 2XeVTOL, which is as much supercomputer as it is helicopter. And the German aviation authority has granted provisional licensing for a two-seat model.

The SureFly from US-based electric vehicle company Workhorse is a two person helicopter prototype with eight independent motors driving a single carbon fibre propeller. Designed for short hops within an estimated 70 mile range, it could be used for precision agriculture, emergency response, military operations and by city commuters. The company received an experimental airworthiness certificate and approval for a flight from FAA just recently and full certification could come in late 2019.

“There is a bit of VHS/Betamax thing going on,” says Mitchell, “without wishing to show my age.” By which he means that there is a risk of being stuck with the wrong technology. There are a number of different format solutions coming out, not only from small aviation start-up enterprises but also from major OEMs like Airbus Helicopters and Bell. “The structure of the technology is going to conform to a certain framework, and I think that there will be a winner. If you've gone for Betamax and the winner is VHS you are going to be feeling a bit sorry for yourself. At the moment the clear winner has not emerged but as an operator we are watching and we are interested.”

He believes pilotless operations will complement piloted ones, and if the technology gathers momentum the helicopter market could expand. If automated drones are acceptable within cities then the same will go, eventually, for piloted aircraft. One of the aspects that has limited progress up to now is access to infrastructure. Around Europe helicopters can land off an airfield and one of the big hurdles has been to extend this permission to other aircraft.

Facilitating the transition to VTOL

Bell, the first company to obtain commercial certification for a helicopter nearly 60 years ago, is now showing its FCS-001 concept helicopter, a high-tech urban air taxi cabin with a full suite of connectivity. The company claims it will be simple to operate and maintain with an energy-efficient airframe design. Bell is exploring individual morphing geometries such as blades, inlets and aerodynamic surfaces through advanced actuation and materials.

There is one pilot seat in its virtual cockpit, and with no multi-function display flight deck pilots will use augmented reality and an artificial intelligence computer assistance system. Forget today's fly-by-wire systems, instead this will be an optionally piloted vehicle where the pilot assumes the role of onboard safety and mission officer while the computer flies with him. Bell claims this is the stepping stone to fully autonomous unpiloted VTOL air vehicles.

Bell is working closely with Uber's Elevate project, which brings together visionaries and innovators in the aerospace, technology, infrastructure and transportation industries to accelerate the deployment of eVTOLs. Echoing Boeing research, Uber has estimated that air taxis could operate at $1.32 per mile, about one third of the price of a turbine helicopter.

Airbus Helicopters and US digitally-powered Fly Blade (Blade) are also planning to develop the urban air mobility market together, and this alliance complements Airbus' Voom offering in emerging markets, which it claims will not only increase customer access to helicopters in urban areas, but will bring more business to operators as their helicopters will be used more frequently in this new market environment.

Voom is a booking platform that launched commercial operations in April 2017 in Sao Paulo and plans to expand its presence around the world. Airbus Helicopters executive vice president customer support and services Matthieu Louvot explains: “Urban transportation on and below ground is reaching its limits and naturally Airbus is looking to the skies to redefine a third axis for public transportation solutions.”

Airbus is developing its own technology in CityAirbus, a self-piloted battery powered aircraft that will carry four passengers on inner-city flights. A mock-up was recently showcased at Heli-Expo in Las Vegas and the project team is busy maturing technologies that should allow a demonstrator to fly by the end of this year.

VTOL seems to be at the front of everyone's minds for the future of passenger operations. Airbus is also exploring a single passenger, self-piloted Vahana electric VTOL aircraft by A^3, its Silicon Valley outpost, and its Altiscope project is helping to shape future regulations and air traffic control requirements for safe integration into urban skies. The company is also working on a Racer high-speed demonstrator that could suit those missions where increased speed and efficiency will bring significant added value as in emergency medical services and search and rescue operations, as well as for private and business aviation.

But how can we expect passengers to get into a pilotless helicopter when they don't even like driverless trains? And would they get into the back seat of a car today and let it do everything, in busy traffic, in a major city? The majority would say no, it needs more testing. The technology may be fine, but psychologically passengers are not ready. We are hearing the same comments about helicopters, customers have confidence when a pilot is at the controls.

So back to traditional piloted helicopters, and C&I Corporation's Tatu envisages a helicopter with an all-composite airframe, a new and efficient rotor design and perhaps no tail rotor. The engine would be powerful and fuel efficient, and there would be an integrated glass cockpit with near vertical incidence skywave, an enhanced ground proximity warning system and ADS-B. He'd like better performing autopilot with at least four-axes too.

SaxonAir's Randall sums up what many think; pilotless operations will certainly happen, but probably not within the next two decades and not least because of slow reaction times by the authorities. “It is a huge undertaking for commercial air transport to suddenly migrate to pilotless operations,” he says. “I think you'll see it in Asia first and the US, and then it will migrate over to Europe.” So if pilotless helicopters are not to be restricted to aerial work, it will be interesting to see how manufacturers are going to convince us otherwise.

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