In 2017, most operational segments of the helicopter industry are focused on several initiatives, including improving safety, meeting existing or upcoming airspace equipage requirements, and introducing new technologies that can lower operational costs. As has often been the case in drives for greater safety and operational efficiency, much of the current work has gained impetus from events in the North Sea. The April 29, 2016 crash near Bergen, Norway of an Airbus Helicopters EC225LP is still fresh in the memory of the industry, and has prompted that OEM to take a closer look at how rotorcraft operators can use flight operations and systems data to improve safety.
The crash occurred when the main rotor separated from the CHC Helikopter Super Puma on a flight returning from an offshore rig. All 11 passengers and both pilots were killed. Investigators have focused on disintegration of a planetary gear in the main gearbox as a likely cause. Although the helicopter was equipped with a health and usage monitoring system (HUMS), it and regular inspections for signs of gearbox degradation apparently provided no hint of a catastrophic failure.
The accident came “as a shock for all the industry, for Airbus, for me and increased my resolve – as well as the company’s – to collectively raise the bar in safety for us, for the industry,” Airbus Helicopters CEO Guillaume Faury tells Avionics Magazine.
This will be among key topics of discussion as the industry gathers March 7-9 for Heli-Expo at Dallas’ Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center.
At the time of the Super Puma accident, Airbus was working with customers like Bristow Group on how they might delve deeper into flight data to identify earlier precursors of system and component problems that might lead to maintenance issues, disrupt operations, and undermine safety.
Faury says that the focus is not on that single accident, but the broader set of crashes and incidents that afflict the industry.
“We strongly believe there is a much broader use of HUMS to be made,” he says, adding that the result may not be “exactly HUMS as we see them today, but better use of data that have been transferred with digital helicopters, with more sensors on board” to enable more monitoring of the aircraft. The result might be new digital products and services, using “big data” and automation of its analysis to capture more feedback on how helicopters and their systems and components are behaving in flight.
Airbus Helicopters benefits from being part of the Airbus Group, whose air transport aircraft unit has been refining use of digital data to enhance operations and safety at airlines for several years. Deployments of new air-to-ground networks and high-speed satellite constellations and a proliferation of the use of aircraft data to improve flight operational efficiency and maintenance strategies has been evolving in the fixed-wing world for several years as well.
Engine makers – Honeywell (Booth 5423), Pratt & Whitney Canada (Booth 7117), Rolls-Royce (Booth 10349) and Safran Helicopter Engines (Booth 10542) – are pursuing various digital initiatives in their individual efforts to help customers reduce flight operations costs and survive what is widely seen as today’s crisis in the helicopter industry.
“The first cusp on the technology side is what we can do with prognostics and being increasingly proactive with our customers,” Pratt & Whitney Canada’s VP of customer programs, Tim Swail, says. “That’s our goal: to be prognostic, to be proactive, and to help drive the customer to new levels of availability and operational efficiency.”
Low oil prices have decimated the industry segment that services offshore oil and gas exploration and production. New helicopter sales have dropped on the order of 50% in the last two years, and the used helicopter market has an abundance of aircraft. The circumstances have focused operators’ attention on cutting all sorts of costs, and the engine makers aim to support their efforts.
“What we are really interested in is how do we reduce the overall cost of our customers to manage their fleet,” says Rolls-Royce’s SVP for helicopters, Jason Propes. “With the data recording and reporting capabilities we’re introducing to the engines, we have the ability to provide our customers with more real-time engine operational data to better support real-time asset utilization decisions.”
Avionics OEMs and connectivity service providers are focusing on how new connected technologies can improve the ability to transmit and receive data to and from rotorcraft in real time for things like predictive maintenance, similar to the way these processes have become commonplace in the fixed-wing world. Installation and usage of satellite communications technology on civil helicopters is still relatively new. Multiple satellite service providers were at the 2016 National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) conference. Only one company whose primary focus is satellite communications, Satcom Direct (Booth 5106), was confirmed as an exhibitor at the publication of this article.
Tom Neumann, director of Honeywell Aerospace’s commercial helicopters division, says he believes the helicopter industry is on the cusp of expanding into more widespread use of connectivity technologies (especially those that build better pipelines between helicopters and their operational centers) and more geographically favorable communications methods. Honeywell recently signed a partnership agreement with cloud-based flight data monitoring company Truth Data to combine the helicopter communications and tracking capabilities of its Sky Connect Tracker III with the cloud-based Flight Operations and Quality Assurance (FOQA) services provided by Truth Data (Booth 6022). Neumann says some of the new usages of connectivity for helicopter operations can include enhanced transmission of large medical files or information in real time for an air ambulance service provider and giving ground-based personnel on a search and rescue team the ability to view in real time the same surveillance area being viewed by the flight crew.
“We feel like we have a very good technology basis of getting data on and off an aircraft, now that we have established better methods for useful information transmissions between the aircraft and the ground,” says Neumann. “We can go to our helicopter operators and say, ‘Here’s how we think the use and acquisition of data and better positioning and weather information can be useful for your operation.”
New technology designed to improve helicopter navigation capabilities for civilian and military operators will be on display at Heli-Expo 2017. Several airframe and avionics OEMs are promoting newer cockpit technologies they have introduced in recent years. This is occurring at the same time that the use of Performance-Based Navigation (PBN) procedures and technologies is becoming more widespread.
In 2016, for example, third-party air navigation service provider Hughes Aerospace (Booth 5824) helped REACH Air Medical services to deploy what it says is the first published Localizer Performance (LP) helicopter approach procedure in the U.S. In 2015-16, the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) Joint Undertaking sponsored several flight demonstrations as part of its PBN Rotorcraft Operations Under Demonstration (PROUD) initiative.
To provide the type of onboard technology to fly more advanced PBN, such as Ground Based Augmentation System (GBAS), Satellite Based Augmentation System (SBAS) and LP with Vertical Guidance (LPV) procedures, avionics manufacturers such as Esterline CMC Electronics (Booth 3207) feature new navigation hardware. Its CMA-6024 Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) landing system is a self-contained GPS receiver and precision landing system supporting both SBAS/LPV and GBAS Landing System (GLS) approaches.
“Operators are interested in such a product so that they can achieve precision (CAT-II & CAT-III) landing at helipads,” says Tarek Sabanekh, Esterline’s program manager – Navigation Systems, Aviation Products. “There is also interest from offshore operators to deploy this or similar technology on offshore platforms to provide safer and more precise helicopter landing.”
At Booth 7648, Airbus’ highlights will include the new Helionix integrated avionics system that is planned to become a common feature of the company’ s aircraft. The European Aviation Safety Authority last November issued a type certificate for the light, twin-engine H135 with a Helionix cockpit.
The system already is certified for use on Airbus’ medium twin H175 and light twin H145, and is incorporated in the medium twin H160 for which the manufacturer aims to gain certification in 2018. The OEM is developing a Helionix upgrade this year to offer helicopter terrain awareness and warning system (HTAWS) functionality and synthetic vision system (SVS) capability on equipped aircraft, as well as search-and-rescue (SAR) and automated offshore rig approach functions on the H175.
Airbus officials say the upgrade also will enable integration of the Sky Connect Tracker III mission management system offered by Honeywell.
Helionix, which the company says it designed to give operators increased mission flexibility and safety, is a family concept of avionics with standardized features that include a four-axis autopilot and a fully modular architecture that can accommodate one to four display screens. The system is designed to automatically reconfigure itself if a component malfunctions and quickly restore equivalent functions without requiring pilot intervention.
The manufacturer says it expects to begin initial deliveries of the Helionix-equipped H135 soon.
The 16,500-pound-class H175 entered service in North America in mid-2016 with the delivery of the type to Transportes Aéreos Pegaso, the Gulf of Mexico offshore oil and gas support operator. (The first operator is Belgium’s NHV.) Airbus also is testing a public service version of the H175 with the Hong Kong Government Flying Service (a top search and rescue operator) and expects to gain certification of that aircraft this year.
At Bell’s booth (11249), that OEM will be celebrating the December type certification of its new light, single-engine, 505 Jet Ranger X, and will explain the status of its fly-by-wire 525 offshore transport helicopter, whose development was stymied by the mid--2016 crash that destroyed prototype killed two test pilots.
The five-seat 505 features a fully integrated glass flight deck that uses the Garmin G1000H avionics suite. Bell says that suite can improve situational awareness and reduce pilot workload, enhancing safety and mission capabilities.
Transport Canada issued the 505 type certificate in late December. The helicopter will be produced at the Bell Helicopter Textron Canada plant in Mirabel, Québec, where manufacturing of the 206L4 is to end by midyear. Bell halted production of the light single 206B in 2010, opening the door for Robinson Helicopter to sweep into the turbine-powered helicopter segment with its R66. (A new law-enforcement configuration of the R66 will be a feature of Robinson’s display at Booth 11842.)
Bell’s efforts to develop the “super medium” 525 Relentless stalled July 6, 2016, when the fly-by-wire aircraft’s No. 1 prototype crashed about 30 nm south-southwest of Bell’s Xworx research center at Arlington, Texas, Municipal Airport. Neither a flight nor ground tests of the other two prototypes have resumed since that crash.
U.S.-based helicopter operators face three FAA equipment mandates in coming years. As of April 24, 2017, Part 135 operators must have their aircraft equipped with an “operable FAA-approved radio altimeter,” or an approved incorporating a radio altimeter, unless otherwise authorized.
After April 23, 2018, “no person may operate a helicopter in air ambulance operations unless it is equipped with an approved flight data monitoring system.”
On Jan. 1, 2020, helicopters that operate in Class A through E airspace will be required to carry DO-260B compliant transponders and GPS receivers. Look for that 2020 deadline to make Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) a hot topic at this year’s show.
Vector Aerospace (Booth 1612) will be showcasing its new FAA supplemental type certificate (STC) for ADS-B Out installations on Airbus Helicopters’ H120, H125, H130, and H135.
An Englewood, Colorado-based engineering company, Peregrine, is not exhibiting but will have representatives at the Heli-Expo talking about their recently completed Approved Model List STC for Air Methods. Peregrine assisted in developing the STC, which covers 16 Airbus variants in Air Methods’ fleet (eight of the AS350, six of the EC135 and two of the EC120), as well as the Leonardo A109 and Bell Helicopter 407, all equipped with Garmin GTX-330ES or GTX33 transponders. Air Methods is doing installations on its own fleet; Peregrine plans to make the STC available for operators of similarly equipped aircraft. AVS