The report, The Potential of Technologies to Mitigate Helicopter Accident Factors, compiled by the European Safety Promotion Network Rotorcraft (ESPN-R) and the Netherlands Research Centre (NLR), states that the most promising safety technologies which can prevent or reduce helicopter accidents are related to avionics, affirms Don Milum, Director of Sales at Universal Avionics.
The ESPN-R and NLR report contains analyses of helicopter safety technologies, technology readiness levels, and relative costs of implementation and provides several recommendations regarding the technologies helicopter operators should utilize to enhance the safety of their operations. The US Helicopter Safety Team and International Helicopter Safety Foundation (IHSF) have also come up with a list of recommended safety enhancements, said Bill Stone, Senior Manager of Business Development at Garmin.
In general, air medical operators should strive to implement avionics upgrades even when upgrades are recommended by, for example, an accident investigation report but not strictly mandated by the air operations regulations.
Upgrading avionics equipment to reduce pilot workload
According to Global Medical Response (GMR), air medical operators should target updates in technology that directly improve the level of pilot information and reduce workload. In a joint statement from Vicky Spediacci and Daniel Sweeza, Chief Operating Officers of Air Operations West and East respectively, and Tony Bonham, Vice President of Aviation, GMR stated: “We are industry-leading when it comes to the adoption of present-day technology to enhance safety, even though there is no regulation to do so. Examples include installation of 2-axis autopilots in our VFR helicopters, adoption of 100 per cent night vision goggle operations, and upgrades of crash-resistant fuel tanks.”
Oisin McGrath, Squadron Commander at the Irish Air Corp and Helicopter Emergency Aero Medical Service specialist, observed that quick response times coupled with unplanned landing zones and regular re-routing while airborne make for a difficult flight profile in air medical and HEMS operations. In this context, the flight crew capacity and the ability to make good decisions while on the move is very important: “Generally, avionic upgrades can greatly increase the capacity of the flight crew, when properly trained and current on the new systems. We learn from each other and more importantly. we learn from the mistakes of others. This requires a high level of reporting but also a high level of adaptation following flight safety recommendations.”
Philip Edelmann, Flight Operations Executive and Pilot at ADAC, concurred, adding: “Recommendations following accident investigations and from other sources are generally in line with our own expectations and demands from our own daily flight routines and are therefore followed even without being mandated by the regulations. We mainly focus on collision avoidance technology including ACAS (TAS), ADS-B, and FLARM, drone-detection both active and passive, and obstacle detection with database systems and active detection. In addition, our moving map systems undergo regular software updates and hardware upgrades including new chart material and additional data overlays.”
Edelmann observed that older displays (such as HeliMaps) need to be replaced by newer systems: “Even iPad-solutions are considered, since iOS apps are much more flexible to adapt to new operational demands.”
Systems like HTAWS and synthetic vision will become more relevant when degraded visual environment (DVE) and IFR operations will become more regular for HEMS-flights. According to Edelman: “But with today’s VFR operations we see limited benefits from these systems, at least at the moment, we generally see little use in upgrading navigational equipment in older aircraft, since pre-glass cockpit aircrafts will not be used in the DVE/IFR environment.”
Speaking with AirMed&Rescue, a Thales spokesperson remarked that the US Helicopter Safety Team (HST) has reinforced its four pillars, the first one being ‘Develop Autopilot Equipment for Light Helicopters’. In response, Thales and StandardAero subsequently released StableLight, a 4-axis autopilot, to the market. “StableLight provides all the safety functions previously available only on medium and large IFR helicopters such as fully hands off capability provided by 4-axis coupling, automatic hover mode, and others. In addition, Stablelight has a unique Automatic Go Around function, triggered by a HTAWS, that can drastically prevent most of hazards encountered by light helicopters like inadvertent IMC or controlled flight into terrain (CFIT).”
Too much tech can interfere with pilot performance
Avionics equipment like TAWS and NVIS are crucial when used independently, and they are very powerful when used together, affirms McGrath: “Increased situational awareness leads to increased level of aviation decision making and a reduction in incidents involving CFIT. Some HEMS operators will include the TAWS or TCAS in the aircraft minimum equipment list (MEL) items that must be serviceable before HEMS operations take place to stress the importance that these tools can have to reduce CFIT.”
According to Edelmann, ADAC noticed additional benefits from HTAWS and NVIS technologies in its daily flight operations, extending its scope of operations. “We do see, however, an increase in equipment weight with new technologies, since we increase the number of systems and seldomly see a weight benefit when replacing old avionics with new ones”, he said. “Integration of new avionics is often not an option due to complex certification issues, but it would be beneficial to reduce pilot workload.”
According to an IHSF survey, the majority of helicopter pilot respondents consider NVGs and HTAWS as highly effective safety enhancements, according to Milum: “The workload of the pilot has been reduced significantly, allowing increased situational awareness of the crew and the integrated cockpit optimized in terms of SWAP-C compared with federated avionics solutions and definitely compared with analog cockpits. Moreover, integrated avionics solutions allow more capabilities and safety enactments in much quicker development cycles than any other avionics architecture.”
Complex avionics equipment on board aircraft, however, can be a double-edged sword, according to McGrath. “Low levels of system training can result in under confidence in the avionics system, which leads to the pilot in command situational awareness to be severely reduced due to high mental capacity needed to correctly manage the avionic system”, he said. “Low levels of system training also can also lead to the tendency for the pilot to uncouple the avionics systems, which further increases capacity for flying the aircraft, particularly in poor weather.” The introduction of any new system requires careful implementation and needs to include updates to operating procedures, checklists, and mandatory training.
There is a need to be mindful to measure each new technology in terms of risk versus benefits, according to Spediacci, Sweeza, and Bonham: “Having separate pieces of equipment and screens to run various technologies can increase a pilot’s workload instead of decreasing a pilot’s workload. Integrated solutions are becoming more commonplace in aviation, which is outstanding because they help reduce workload.”
However, according to Edelmann, ADAC did not experience major operational problems with newly designed, user-friendly avionics. “In our opinion, possible issues can be mitigated with intensive flight crew training,” he said.
Upgrading enhanced flight vision systems
According to Milum, there are two main types of upgrades helicopter operator typically opt for. One is from analog or federated avionics to fully integrated solution, optimized in terms of SWAP-C, provide safety enhancements, reduce crew workload, and enable fly under IFR regime.
The other type is centered on enhanced flight vision systems, which extend the ability of the helicopters operators to operate safely under degraded visual conditions during night, day, and bad weather conditions.
Synthetic vision is a technology that can help the helicopter pilot to visualize the terrain obstacles, wires, and similar types of hazards on the ground, observed Stone. “We are seeing a good uptake in amount of this technology as it really helps increase situational awareness for the operator and directly addresses these operational hazards,” he said.
When upgrading, ADAC typically opts for off-the-shelf equipment offered by the helicopter OEM because of price and standardization benefits, said Edelmann: “If not available, third-party avionics are evaluated and if no alternative is found it is also purchased. The major challenge in such a case is usually the STC.”
Keeping track of valuable new flight hardware to invest in
Currently, GMR is investing in simulator technology to help with pilot training. “Simulator access and fidelity have grown immensely over the last few years, and this is a huge benefit for all operations,” according to Spediacci, Sweeza, and Bonham.
In order to enable 24/7 operations availability – a critical priority for SAR/HEMS and any other mission critical service looking to operate through all weather conditions, Milum stated: “Technologies to operate in all-weather are under development these days, such as Heli-Clearvision of Universal Avionics.”
In general, high-risk flights are associated with inclement weather and low cloud base and low visibility are the most desirable areas for investing in upgrades in the foreseeable future, according to McGrath. “For VFR operations, 4-axis flight auto pilot, TAWS and NVIS should be considered by all operators. If pushing toward both VFR and IFR operations, these technologies are crucial but also increased and accurate weather radar use would be expected as well as ground mapping ability for IFR to VFR transitions.
“However, with the ever-increasing numbers of high obstacles being placed in various areas - such as cranes, turbines, antennae, and masts - a more efficient system to quickly upload an obstacle database would be a desirable addition to flight systems upgrades,” McGarth added. “Newly erected obstacles would then be available on the aircraft TAWS, confirmed with the weather radar (offshore) and viewed with NVIS. Some external software providers who not a direct part of the on-board aircraft software have very efficient ways to alert flight crews with active ‘no-fly’ zones and obstacles.”
Edelmann also emphasized the value of certified and fully integrated combined collision avoidance technology to SAR/HEMS operators, something yet to be provided. “It should be lightweight, high performance, with high range wire/drone/bird/obstacle-detection. It should come with HEMS-mission specific avionics, with moving map integration, and with unified and real-time (inflight) transmission of the mission site location as a data-uplink,” he said. “Here, the lack of national (or even international) standardization of such data-links is the major challenge. Inflight display of HEMS landing site information (including approach charts, facility information, etc.) and inflight display of data like NOTAMS, weather, VFR-PIREPS, future U-Spaces, need to be taken in consideration as well.”
Stone observes that Garmin is regularly looking at how to enhance helicopter operations and increase safety in the air medical and air rescue domains. “We are currently working on automated information sharing, advanced flight controls, and we are continuing to find ways to reduce pilot workload”, he concludes.