Rotorcraft Demand and Innovation Taking Off

2018 should be a year that continues to see technological breakthroughs and improvements in safety — in an industry that is getting younger and leaner while becoming more data-driven and embracing drones as a business opportunity.

In 2018, industry analysts predict we will see a mild recovery from slumping sales of new airframes by the industry’s biggest rotorcraft original equipment manufacturers (OEM), who saw consistent quarterly increases in sales of new airframes in 2017. Sales of new rotorcraft are trending upward, with sales of turbine and piston-powered rotorcraft increasing by 7.7% to $2.7 billion in the first nine months of 2017.

The industry had a good year in 2017, in terms of the market. Compared to 2016, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) reported shipments and billings were up in 2017’s third quarter. The trend is in the right direction and should continue in 2018.

Karl Fessenden, CEO of CHC Helicopter, said the company is introducing new Airbus Helicopters H175s in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, as well as new Leonardo AW189s in the Asia Pacific region. Fessenden said safety is a key focus, and CHC sees opportunities to grow and support the energy, search and rescue (SAR), and emergency medical services (EMS) markets in 2018.

“We are seeing signs of stabilization, but the market remains challenging,” said Fessenden. “We expect to see new opportunities for oil and gas transport, renewable energy such as offshore wind production, SAR and EMS needs in current and emerging markets, and our continued investment in our global [maintenance, repair and overhaul] capabilities through Heli-One. These opportunities are highly competitive.”

China is another market presenting opportunity. Jens Hennig, GAMA’s VP of operations, told R&WI that today’s Chinese rotorcraft market is a product of about a decade of focused efforts to convey the benefits rotorcraft can bring to responding to emergencies and natural disasters. Right now, one main area of focus for China in terms of rotorcraft procurement is air medical. The country is currently learning how it might grow that market while exploring its associated challenges. 2018 could also see a continuation of China’s efforts to modernize its airborne law enforcement, search and rescue, and VIP civilian transport operations — as airspace regulations that have been historically suppressant to low-level general aviation flying in China are finally starting to relax.

China is a major market presenting opportunity. The nation’s AVIC in 2017 completed all airworthiness tests for its AC313.Photo courtesy of AVIC

The VIP and VVIP transportation segment is another sector to watch, especially with the U.S. economy performing well under the new administration. Demand for VIP transportation via helicopter is increasing globally, said Charlotte Pedersen, CEO of Luxaviation Helicopters, which became among the world’s largest helicopter VIP/VVIP operators when the Luxembourg-based company acquired UK-based charter operator Starspeed.

Pedersen sees growth ahead for this segment of the business aviation market.

“If we did not believe in this market, we would never have started up and moved into it,” said Pedersen. “We strongly believe that it will grow.”

Luxaviation’s business model relies upon the use of third-party-operated helicopters that are reused for charter flight operations. She said this is a huge business opportunity for helicopter owners and operators who want to reduce the operational cost of their helicopters.

“At the moment, the demand exceeds the supply that we have. There’s simply not enough management clients in the market to fly our [aircraft on certificate],” said Pedersen.

Military spending in 2018 is also shaping up to increase sales of new rotorcraft — especially in the U.S. where the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act includes billions of dollars assigned to the procurement of Boeing AH-64 Apache Block IIIs, Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk M Models and Boeing CH-47s, according to the latest available version of the NDAA.

There’s also optimism about the sales of new aftermarket products such as crash-resistant fuel tanks, which have the potential to reduce the risk of post-crash fires that occur during survivable helicopter crashes. A crash-resistant fuel bladder, with the same capacity as a traditional fuel cell, magnetic field sensor fuel gauging technology and vent system rollover protection are among some of the engineering advancements becoming available in the aftermarket to improve safety.

“As we developed this crash-resistant fuel tank, we’re also looking at high-tension wire detection systems, anti-icing detection, autopilots and a number of other autopilots that can be put on helicopters to make them safer,” said Rick Stine, president of components, helicopters and accessories at StandardAero, an independent provider of maintenance, repair and overhaul services that recently acquired Vector Aerospace.

Stine said StandardAero expects to continue to see high demand for the crash-resistant fuel tank for which it recently received an FAA supplemental type certificate. However, Stine believes that 2018 will also see the continuation of another trend: operating within a new mode of normal.

“The market has been suppressed for the last several years because of the oil pricing. We’re starting to see that a lot of the market has adjusted to the new norm and figured out how to make money at the lower dollar cost of oil,” said Stine. “We’re starting to see some things improve in the marketplace. With those signs, we think 2018 is going to be a positive year for MRO, as the workforce starts seeing more flight hours across the network.”

New Forms of Flying

With the market trending in the right direction, the industry is poised to turn down-market innovative ideas into flyable aircraft.

“It’s well known that in aviation, the introduction of new products always has a stimulating effect on sales,” said GAMA’s Hennig. “Over the last two years, and also expected for the next couple years, there have been key product introductions from several manufactures. That, of course, has a positive effect on numbers.”

With the added attention that Uber’s Elevate urban air transportation initiative brought to vertical-flight aircraft, many other companies — original equipment manufactures (OEM), startups and even some ground vehicle firms — began showcasing their ideas for VTOL aircraft.

XTI Aircraft Co. said it had begun to assemble a scaled test version of its TriFan in September, with hopes to fly it within a year. Airbus’ CityAirbus is scheduled to conduct unmanned flight tests in 2018. Aurora Flight Sciences, which is now a subsidiary of Boeing, will also continue flight testing its autonomous unmanned Huey in 2018.

XTI’s TriFan aim for test flights in 2018.Photo courtesy of XTI

Several other programs have 2020 targets. If Uber hopes to demonstrate an urban air taxi network in 2020, there could be some milestones on the near horizon — perhaps choosing an aircraft design from an OEM partner or unveiling concepts for charging stations for its electric aircraft.

Airbus unveiled its Rapid And Cost-Effective Rotorcraft (RACER) during the Paris Air Show in June, with an aim for first flight in 2020. Perhaps the OEM will show a larger-scaled model in 2018.

But to fly these futuristic aircraft, the infrastructure will need to be intact. And before aviation authorities pass rules for unmanned passenger aircraft, they’re going to have to start with smaller unmanned aircraft.

The U.S. White House’s newly announced UAS integration pilot program should see further implementation in 2018, which would assist in developing regulatory framework for low-altitude operations. It gives states and other local-level governments the opportunity to work with the government to test systems and concepts for drone integration into the National Airspace System.

Internationally, the rotorcraft industry is increasingly embracing the use of drones as a business opportunity, which is especially noticeable considering how many of these types of aircraft continue to take up floor space at the world’s largest annual helicopter trade show, Heli-Expo.

“Drones are a game changer. There’s no denying this is going to change the way that aviation operates,” said Matt Zuccaro, CEO of Helicopter Association International (HAI). “This is a watershed moment for our industry, and we’re concentrated on looking at that out into the next generation of the helicopter world.

“We’re embracing drones; we think it’s a great business opportunity to give the customer base for our members more options that could work better for them and supplement the real helicopters. We at HAI also have a new membership category for unmanned vehicle operators, and we’re now starting to embed unmanned operation protocol into our approved program accreditation for safety.”

The HAI chief also believes that the industry needs to continue looking to establish the next generation of rotorcraft industry leadership.

“We’re seeing constraints where some commercial operators cannot meet some of the contractual obligations offered to them. We believe, based on numbers, that with the reduction of people entering pilot training and technician training, there is going to be a gap,” Zuccaro said. “We commissioned the University of North Dakota on behalf of HAI to do a gap analysis study for us on the shortage of pilots and technicians over the next 20 years. That’s one thing we’re very concentrated on, making sure we have the right people for the next generation to carry us forward.” RWI

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