The U.S. Helicopter Safety Team spun off from the International Helicopter Safety Team in 2013 and is composed of government regulators and industry operators who make data-driven safety recommendations to the rotorcraft industry. In February, just ahead of the rotorcraft world’s largest annual gathering, the advocacy group released a report that details a vision for reducing fatalities in part by removing humans from the equation in certain situations, and also giving helicopter pilots access to tools and technology that allow small drones to avoid obstacles, hover without pilot input, and even fly themselves home.
Pilots of drones and helicopters seem at times like aeronautical Hatfields and McCoys, each camp eyeing the other warily, sometimes competing for the same dollars. Yet some helicopter pilots suggest embracing unmanned options will save lives.
The report’s authors studied years of accident data, zeroing in on the most common fatal accident factors. More than half of the fatal helicopter accidents since 2009 involved: loss of control, unintended flight into instrument meteorological conditions, or low-altitude operations. The USHST concluded that loss of human life could have been avoided in roughly one in five of the accidents involving these factors, if an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) or optionally piloted aircraft (OPA) been used instead of a manned helicopter.
Applications that can be performed by UAS or an OPA continue to grow. Given the continued expansion of UAS and OPA (both in sensor and performance) capabilities, their use to supplement and support operations is logical when manned operations are at a particularly high risk, such as in low level situations, rapidly changing terrain and weather, and especially near manmade obstacles (poles, towers, wires, etc.).
Complacency, fatigue, birds, quickly changing weather, and obstacles are common risks associated with power line inspection, aerial application of chemicals, firefighting, crop defrosting and harvesting, and pipeline and wind turbine inspection.
The authors also recommend fitting manned helicopters with drone technology including obstacle avoidance systems that are already used by off-the-shelf drones that cost $1,500 or less. The report lists 22 current UAS capabilities that could benefit helicopters.
A third recommendation is to fit helicopters with technology allowing them to be remotely piloted, or piloted by less complex, more intuitive means. Reducing human pilot workload and distractions would inevitably increase safety.
Some manufacturers are already well on their way to doing this. Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin subsidiary created by and named after the inventor of the world’s first practical helicopter, has been testing a 12,000-pound S–76 dubbed the Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft. SARA is equipped with automation technology that enables the helicopter to fly with little or no human input. While highly qualified test pilots remained on board during the early tests, the company has more recently tested the system with non pilots who take the controls with as little as 30 minutes of training. One of the program’s goals is to allow future helicopter pilots to take their hands and feet off the controls and concentrate more on the overall mission. There is also an economic aspect, particularly as many companies are vying to create on-demand urban air taxi service. While many are building electric vertical takeoff and landing concepts from scratch, more traditional helicopters could one day fly with two crew, one pilot or none, making more room for passengers (aka “paying customers”).
The USHST study focuses on safety more than economics, though the report addresses both. More than a few helicopter pilots insist that drones are killing their business by offering cheaper, and at times, more readily available alternatives to the heavier, more costly aircraft. The report urges helicopter operators to integrate drones into their business to increase profitability and safety.
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