European Helo Operators Mull Using Drones

 - August 17, 2015, 2:59 PM
Small unmanned aircraft can add capabilities for operators at a relatively low cost.

Remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) present new opportunities for helicopter operators and some industry representatives in Europe suggest operators supplement their fleets with these aircraft, which can fill roles that rotorcraft cannot. Reaction to the idea among operators is mixed. One says it found the idea to be more complicated to implement than portrayed, and dismissed it as impractical.

Another operator (of fixed-wing aircraft) is all for drones: “If I were a helicopter operator, I would buy drones! If these guys don’t start using drones, they will be swept out of business one day or another,” advises Laurent Caillard, managing director and chief pilot of France-based Air Marine, which flies airplanes and RPAS for surveillance and inspection missions, among others. Caillard emphasized that a rapidly growing proportion of air-to-ground videos today are filmed with RPAS, and he predicts RPAS at some point will replace manned aircraft for the mission. However, he believes helicopters will never be completely replaced, as there is no substitute for the human brain in assessing the big picture, he said.

Vittorio Morassi, chairman of the National Helicopter Association Committee of the European Helicopter Association (EHA), holds a similar view. “It would be a good idea for a helicopter operator to operate drones. It is important for helicopter operators to be aware of their possibilities. They could broaden the portfolio of services that helicopters render,” he said. They could replace helicopters on some missions, he continued, but on a limited scale–on surveillance, for example–because of their limited endurance.

Dominique Orbec, president of French helicopter lobbying association UFH, sees RPAS as a complement to rather than a replacement for conventional rotorcraft. “An RPAS might be useful as a reconnaissance tool before a complex sling-load mission,” he said. Also, a helicopter would not be the right platform to take a close-up photo of an architectural detail, which could be better accomplished with a drone. He anticipates RPAS will replace helicopters for their current missions in only a marginal way. “Some have suggested unmanned air vehicles could be used for search-and-rescue, but this is unrealistic; nothing can replace the combination of a pilot and a doctor,” he emphasized.

Operational Hurdles

Gerold Biner, a pilot and the CEO of Switzerland-based Air Zermatt, has a cautious outlook but does see RPAS as a potential tool for search operations in the mountains.

Another Swiss helicopter operator, Air Glaciers, considered such a move last year. The main benefit would have been to avoid risking the lives of pilots and mountain guides by operating RPAS in poor weather or at night. However, the idea went nowhere, according to flight operations manager Patrick Fauchère. “The technology is just moving too quickly,” he said, citing patents that prevent implementation of Air Glaciers’ ideas on a newly designed drone.

Another shortcoming would have been range. “If the RPAS is to replace a helicopter in poor-weather search operations, you have to bring it relatively close to the accident site, as it can’t fly from one of our bases. How will you carry it there?” Fauchère asked. Air Glaciers is now in a “wait and see” position, as other uses of drones in the mountains might spark new ideas.

In Italy, too, some helicopter operators are exploring the feasibility of adding drones to their fleets, according to EHA’s Morassi. No one AIN interviewed had heard of a helicopter operator actually operating RPAS. Nonetheless, the UFH is looking into establishing links between the two industries. “We could have a representative of the RPAS sector in our association,” Orbec said.

One challenge inhibiting the growth of RPAS operations is cost. While light ones are inexpensive, they also offer limited payload and endurance, especially rotary-wing drones. Switzerland’s Easy2Map, for example, uses Sensefly’s fixed-wing RPAS for its photogrammetry missions. The endurance, a few dozen minutes, is much longer than that of quadcopters, even for a payload that weighs approximately a pound.

For missions that require a heavier payload (about 35 pounds), Easy2Map would need a $400,000 RPAS, chairman Jean-François Rolle estimates, and it would take three people to operate it. For such a payload, Rolle calls on sister company Helimap System, which charters a helicopter at a cost of $45 per minute.

Another criterion is the mission’s size. “For jobs covering up to a few dozen acres, we use RPAS, but for those covering hundreds of acres the cost of a helicopter can be justified,” Rolle said. He added that his team used to execute the smaller-size missions from the ground, but that was a lengthy process.

Air Marine’s Caillard admires the French rules (“a good compromise,” they categorize RPAS operations, allowing the nascent industry to thrive while preserving public safety) but expressed concern about potential certification costs in the future. “We should oppose those who want to impose manned-aircraft certification rules on RPAS,” he said. In Europe, RPAS regulations are national. “In Italy, a UAV must stay within 500 meters of the operator, which more or less [means] visual contact,” EHA’s Morassi explained. The EASA, which so far has regulated RPAS heavier than 150 kg (330 pounds), is to publish a proposal for lighter classes this year.

Safety remains an issue. Air Marine’s Caillard estimates the accident rate at one every 20 flight hours. But he notes that each flight often lasts just a few minutes. He sees potential progress for safety, both in operations (thanks to the experience operators are gaining) and design. “We should [avoid] manufacturers that do not understand a certification process will become mandatory,” he said.

Flying a drone is so easy that operators tend to use them close to their limits, Caillard noted. Moreover, today’s rules are not enforced constructively, according to UFH’s Orbec. He cited as an example an instance during a rally, four drones took off simultaneously with a TV helicopter. “But the organizers had not alerted the pilot, who had to alter his flight path to avoid the drones,” he said. At the same time, he added, excessive temporary flight restrictions continue to be created.