Despite the economic slowdown in recent years, the rotorcraft industry is demonstrating a period of recovery with industry reports revealing a growing, highly competitive landscape. We asked Jaime Arqué, Chairman of the European Helicopter Association (EHA), about the future of the industry, the unique challenges and advantages facing the sector as well as the promise of recovering and emerging markets.
What’s your opinion of the overall industry right now?
The helicopter industry is very diverse, and we cannot give a single answer that fits all. The offshore industry has been through a few challenging years with the reduction in oil prices. This has meant that the industry has had to go through a period of review and restructure, which means we have seen levels of collaboration that have never been higher.
The HEMS industry is steady but struggling with the costs and their adaptation to the regulations with different success depending on the countries. The market is slowly growing but, there are still some few Member States that prefer to provide state HEMS services instead of allowing commercial operators to work in accordance with REG 965/2012. We wish to see a change with these policies in the medium term.
The recovery of the European economy has also resulted in the increase of aerial works activity, although the SPO regulation is creating some barriers between countries, as the consideration of high-risk operations is not at all uniform.
What do you see as the biggest opportunities for the rotorcraft industry over the next five years?
Some of the opportunities we have seen are in the area of strategies that are working across boundaries to learn from other sectors of the rotorcraft and fixed wing industries. Learning from other sectors including their barriers and enablers, which cuts across all aspects of helicopter segments, to the regulators and manufacturers assisting with the implementation of innovation in the offshore community.
Data sharing is a huge opportunity to make us safer, effective, efficient and measure the strategies we are deploying today are working on the frontline.
In contrast to the previous question, what are the current or emerging challenges facing the industry?
The reduction in oil prices impacted the industry, which results in less ‘discretionary’ spend in the areas of innovation and enhancement of current technologies. However, through collaboration offshore operators are bringing economies of scale to bare. This is facilitating a forward-looking industry that can think about emerging technologies and innovation, which is also being helped by an increase of oil prices.
What innovations have you observed in the rotorcraft industry in recent years that have particularly impressed you, and why?
The helicopter commercial aviation transport business has seen vast investment through organisations such as Google, Amazon, Uber and the helicopter manufacturers in areas such as autonomous taxi services, tilt rotor technologies with commercial transport applications, package delivery, quad copter design, etc. This investment will facilitate the enhancement of these technologies and their application.
Considering recent developments in unmanned rotorcraft, the tiltrotor and UAV technology, in your opinion, how crucial is innovation for the industry?
Most of society have very little to do with helicopters, other than noise complaints. However, their application and versatility are still unsurpassed. The future of vertical transport technologies will engage with most of society on a daily basis, which can only do the helicopter industry good. The concept of vertical flight from the helicopter to other technologies and applications such as the tilt rotor, UAVs / UASs, autonomous helicopter transport is absolutely crucial to the future of how this industry will evolve over the next decade.
Being able to embrace that these innovations are becoming part of daily life is an important fact to understand and work with. EHA recognises this and is working to ensure that it remains relevant in these new technologies and innovations.
Regarding the current development of UAV and drone technology, what opportunities does this present for the industry?
The development of the civil drone industry is dependent on the ability of drones to safely operate in various areas of airspace, especially at very low levels such as below 150 metres. This issue will be technologically solved and the use of drones in many sectors will create significant benefits. It is clear that the use of drones will exponentially expand, and the combination of new technologies will allow drones to provide services that today cannot be provided at a reasonable cost. The present helicopter operators will have to reinvent themselves, and to complement the classical helicopter operations with drones will be an important growth opportunity.
Could you identify any specific sectors or areas of the industry that you believe will benefit from collaboration and integration of drone technology?
There are many areas where drones will be able to provide direct services and others where drones will collaborate with manned piloted helicopters supporting them and improving efficiency. Just to mention some examples, drones for support missions such as map and monitor construction sites, for forest fires surveillance, for transport infrastructure maintenance, for monitoring traffic flows, crowds and providing emergency support, to enforce all kind of traffic compliance, drones for humanitarian aid. Very soon, we will see a huge development of drones for freight transport, and not too late, we will see passenger drones engaged in urban mobility.
There is no doubt that to ensure this development, safety and security goes first and transport policy makers have a huge challenge in front of them
Given news of an anticipated pilot and mechanic shortage, what steps, in your opinion, does the industry need to take to safeguard future growth?
Education, education, education. Having strategic planning in place to foster passion and interest with school students, the secondary education sector and higher education sector are crucial to protecting the future. A lot of young students are moving into the IT sector and there is little interest in science and engineering. However, we have to foster plans to try to address this to provide a pipeline to the industry of passionate individuals who would move into this sector.