HAI Convention News

Avionics Makers Hold Key to Extending Helicopter Lifespans

 - March 4, 2023, 8:31 AM
Garmin's cockpit upgrade for the Eurocopter AS350 replaces a variety of legacy primary flight instruments including the primary attitude indicator, course deviation indicator, horizontal situation indicator, and multi-function display. (Photo: Garmin)

The life cycle of a helicopter lasts several decades, and helicopters can maintain their economic viability well into their lifespan. But as technology in general develops, at some point helicopter equipment becomes obsolete. Avionics upgrades in particular offer opportunities for obsolescence management to operators of older machines.

According to Pat Coleman, manager of aviation aftermarket sales for the Americas at Garmin (Booth 5020), operators look for safety enhancements for their missions, enhanced quality and reliability, modernization, simplified operations, increased integration, weight savings, reduced cost of ongoing operations, and flat-rate repairs.

Bedford, Texas-based Reb Technologies (Booth B5315) has opened an international division that focuses on avionics upgrades called REMS. “Our goal is to provide a clean crew station with the information needed to ensure safety of flight, particularly safety in the critical phases of flight,” said Jeff Stubbs, Rebtech senior v-p of operations and systems technology. “The biggest issue we see today is that companies—and more so governments—are still doing business as they were pre-Covid. Aviation took a pretty sizeable lump during the pandemic; spare parts are rare and when they are available, one has to jump. We are seeing an increase in avionics obsolescence due to sub-vendors closing and key subcomponents no longer available.”

Helicopter operators must consider the return on investment for upgrade options when considering an avionics system, said Universal Avionics CEO Dror Yahav. “Some cost-saving benefits are easily recognized, while others require further analysis,” he explained. “Obvious benefits include enhanced mission capabilities, which increase efficiency and allow operators to do more. Other system enhancements may [involve] operations with flight planning and performance improvements to save time and reduce costs. ”

According to Chris Polynin, director of product management at L3Harris Commercial Aviation Solutions (Booth C2431), interoperability with existing systems is a critical requirement of helicopter operators. “They need the ability to add a new capability without a wholesale replacement of the existing cockpit,” he said. “Our products, for example, are designed to play well with others, utilizing standard interfaces. The Navy and oil industries require tactical navigation systems, and we have operators using our TACAN+. For offshore helicopters, TCAS is in demand because of reduced visibility and dense traffic. Just in the Gulf of Mexico, there are about 2,500 sorties per day.”

Andrew Barker, vice president of integrated avionics at Honeywell Aerospace (Booth B808), explained that the two primary drivers of helicopter avionics upgrades are analog instrument obsolescence and the need for improved situational awareness, which suppliers can satisfy by adding synthetic vision and terrain to the cockpit displays. “The addition of an integrated radar altimeter and ADS-B traffic information services/flight information services on the primary flight display are also significant contributors,” he said. “In addition, navigation upgrades such as wide area augmentation system and certified class B terrain are also drivers of the upgrades. Depending on the operator, they may look for a few or potentially all features.”

Some less easily recognizable cost benefits can come from the maintenance areas of the operation, noted Yahav. “Older antiquated avionics may require more frequent, costly repairs due to their age,” he said. “There may be a significant reduction in component weight when upgrading to newer avionics suites, once again, improving capabilities and reducing operating costs. There may also be a reduction in required spares to keep in stock and an increase in repair capabilities of the newer, non-antiquated equipment. All of these can be rolled up into an extremely hard to value but nonetheless very valuable benefit of safety in all operations.”