Symbiosis in the sky

Symbiosis in the sky

By Gerrard Cowan, Shephard Media

The interaction between UAVs and helicopters is set to be a key market driver in both unmanned and rotary domains over the next decade. The UAV/rotary relationship is complex: while UAVs could replace helicopters in some roles, regulations and other demands are likely to sustain manned flight elsewhere. There are also grey areas that combine the best of both worlds.

The rise of UAVs was a major focus at this year’s Helitech International, with a number of speakers addressing the topic over the three days. For example, Hannah Nobbs, innovation scout at the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) – a charity that works to save lives at sea – presented ‘What we learned from exploring the potential of drones for maritime SAR’, alongside Phil Hanson, aviation technical assurance manager at the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

Safety at sea

The RNLI and HM Coastguard recently held a series of demonstrations and challenges in South Wales called UK Search and Rescue in the Third Dimension, which explored the potential benefits of UAVs in a life-saving environment. Ahead of the publication of the results, Nobbs said there are likely to be a number of benefits that UAVs can provide in a life-saving role at sea in the future. For example, drones could be used to boost local situational awareness in the areas around lifeboats. This could be particularly useful for the organisation’s smaller, in-shore vessels, which are relatively low in the water, making it difficult to see over waves in higher sea states. ‘The idea is that we could help by having some awareness away from the boat,’ Nobbs told Helitech International Daily News, adding that these systems would have to be largely autonomous because there would not be the space or capacity to remotely operate UAVs from on board the lifeboats. The technology is not yet available for this, she added, but it could be feasible in future. Nobbs pointed out that it is possible that helicopters and UAVs could complement one another in the life-saving role in the coming years. While rotary-wing platforms and lifeboats would serve as rescue vehicles, UAVs could be used to support searches over large areas of water. ‘The quicker you can cover an area, the better,’ Nobbs said. ‘If you’ve got a helicopter platform that is flanked by drones, then that could allow you to make a much better and quicker assessment of an area, but you would still need the helicopter to pick someone up when needed.’

Gale of opportunity

UAVs could also play a major role in the offshore wind farm sector, said Dr Khalid Kamhawi, lead of advanced engineering at Offshore Wind Consultants (OWC), who will also be presenting on the subject at the show. Technological development and industry expectations point to a future in which UAVs ‘are the basic state of affairs’ in this area, he noted. ‘In the future, we will likely have the ability to control UAVs more easily and effectively,’ Kamhawi explained. ‘There is no pilot on board, so there is less operational risk, and [drones] are also likely to become cheaper, while regulatory change will mean they can be used in a wider range of roles.’ UAVs are currently used in a limited number of missions in offshore wind farms, Kamhawi said.

They are mainly deployed as inspection vehicles to check for damage or wear and tear on the blades. However, such platforms could eventually be utilised in a range of other tasks. Inspecting other parts of the turbine, such as the tower and the nacelles, and searching the surrounding area to ensure vessels, aircraft or migrating birds are not coming too close to the turbines are some possible uses.

In the longer term, UAVs could potentially be helpful in construction and maintenance, to transport light objects and spare parts, for example. Helicopters are currently used to transport people to turbines, Kamhawi said – mainly engineers who work on the equipment. While the offshore oil and gas industry relies on manned platforms, this is not the case in the wind sector, which is largely unmanned as there is naturally less of a need to transport people back and forth. However, that could change in the coming decades, Kamhawi suggested, with the development of ‘mega fields’ of turbines, which will likely include ‘islands’ staffed by engineers and other personnel who will conduct operations and maintenance work on the fields.

This concept would also require means of staff transportation, with helicopters being an obvious choice. However, UAVs may one day even be used in this role, said Kamhawi. ‘The major obstacle now is obviously legislation and regulations around the use of UAVs,’ he pointed out. ‘There is also the need for more experience – the technology is still not mature enough to do all the work that helicopters do.’

Innovative goals

There is also potential for elements of unmanned technology to be incorporated into rotorcraft. The Kopter SH09 will feature a four-axis autopilot, said Michele Riccobono, executive VP of technology at the OEM. While Kopter is not considering developing a fully unmanned version of the platform, the aircraft’s architecture – particularly the autopilot – ‘will easily allow it to transform into an optionally piloted/remotely piloted or unmanned version’. The company is displaying the first prototype – known as P1 – of the SH09 at Helitech International, wrapped in the colour scheme of a new customer (see p6).

Bell is considering the possibility of incorporating optionally piloted helicopters into its own fleet, said Scott Drennan, VP of innovation at Bell, who identified this as one of his goals for the company’s innovation future. ‘We’re seeing opportunities and desire from our customers to have the choice between a piloted mission and an unmanned or more autonomous mission,’ Drennan told Helitech International Daily News. He added that this demand is being driven by a diverse set of opportunities for optionally piloted helicopters. ‘One day, you might need to take 16 of your people out to an oil rig,’ he explained. ‘That is a mission where you would need a great pilot and other officers. But, then, another day, you might need to take some maintenance tools out to the same rig, so you might want to run the mission as unmanned.’

As well as reducing costs, Drennan suggested that this concept could also be beneficial from a safety and risk standpoint, as it would allow operators to rest their pilot and crew for another mission. He said Bell’s most modern helicopters could both be adapted to this role. These are the single-engine Bell 505 Jet Ranger X and the Bell 525 Relentless, a twin-engine super-medium platform. The 505 has been certified, while the plan is to have the 525 certified by the end of 2019, Drennan confirmed. ‘I think about the potential for optionally piloted across the entire fleet, whether it’s a small helicopter like the 505 or a big helicopter like the 525,’ he said.

Down to the wire

Drennan explained that the 525 will use fly-by-wire controls, which lend the platform to being optionally piloted. ‘We look at autonomy as a spectrum of capabilities, and we start it at fly-by-wire… to take some of the tasking away from the pilot and towards the computer in order to enhance safety and provide other advantages, depending on the vehicle.’ He said that the vision of a future in which people could climb into a vehicle, type in the co-ordinates and be transported to their destination ‘has fly-by-wire threaded through it… The gamechanger is to have fly-by-wire as the backbone of these systems.’ Optionally piloted vehicles sit somewhere between manned helicopters and these futuristic platforms, Drennan added. ‘Between those bookends you can imagine optionally piloted vehicles, a mix of manned and unmanned.’ Autonomous systems are also increasingly being used on board manned systems, Drennan added, supporting flight controls and situational awareness. ‘With rotorcraft in particular, the workload for the human pilot can get quite intense on some of the really challenging missions we operate in,’ he said. ‘Computers can do the dull, dirty and dangerous tasks very well.’

Click here to download Hannah Nobbs’ presentation, plus many more from the three days of Helitech International.

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