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Innovating rotorcraft: the connected helicopter

Aerospace
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By Robin Milan | September 22, 2017

In anticipation of this year’s Helitech conference we look at the ‘connected helicopter’ and how it could transform the rotorwing and insurance industries.

We are looking forward to attending this year’s highly regarded Helitech International conference, to be held in London from 3-5 October, and hope to see many of you there. One thing that has caught our eye on the agenda this year is the focus on technology; from optimising search and rescue operations to improving customer satisfaction.

In anticipation of the conference, Helitech commissioned a survey to identify how rotor wing professionals perceive the industry now, and what they expect from the future. Interestingly, 60% of respondents believe the rotor wing sector is failing to keep pace with the aviation industry as a whole when it comes to innovation. Despite this, there are a number of events on the conference schedule centred on technological innovation, with one such seminar focusing on ‘The Connected Helicopter’.

We are looking forward to hearing presenters from Lufttransport, Safran, Leonardo, Bell, Airbus and Rolls-Royce discuss how connectivity, the Internet of Things and big data could be used to ‘develop predictive maintenance regimes, improve safety and optimise operations’. In anticipation, we examine some of the risks and opportunities presented by the connected helicopter.

The (un)connected helicopter

Whether for search and rescue missions, emergency medical services, or military assignments helicopters often operate in remote environments. This makes them hard to connect to cellular towers and unlike airplanes helicopters have no dedicated air-to-ground networks. Add to this the fact that a helicopter’s fast moving rotor blades disrupt satellite signals, and you have a recipe for very limited connectivity.

The ‘connected’ helicopter could overcome these issues by integrating Wi-Fi and satellite technologies into its operations; allowing operators to develop predictive maintenance regimes, improve safety and optimise operations.

The opportunity of connectivity

The connected helicopter presents significant opportunities across a variety of helicopter operations.

Search and rescue

Currently, helicopter search and rescue missions rely on the rescuer or ‘spotter’ to identify the search subject, often in difficult terrain such as at the base of a cliff face or on snow-covered mountains. However, in a connected helicopter the search zone could be live-streamed to additional spotters on the ground, allowing for more ‘eyes’ on the operation. This capability could decrease flight time, allowing the subject to be extricated faster but also decreasing the chance of a crash as flying conditions can deteriorate rapidly in these environments.

Helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS)

HEMS pilots operating connected helicopters could communicate with hospitals in real time, allowing for faster and more effective treatment. Video conferencing software for example could allow doctors to remotely diagnose patients and provide live information on the accident zone, arguably increasing the chance of patient survival.

Personal travel

According to a white paper produced by Honeywell, during a test of their connected satellite communications system a VIP passenger was able to “send and receive PowerPoint presentations, make phone calls, send text messages and surf the web.” The pilot was also able to test voice and data transmissions using data rates “on par with those seen in fixed-wing business jets”. If the connected helicopter is able to conquer the problems caused by ‘rotorwash’, it could offer operators a competitive advantage when attracting customers by creating an ‘office in the sky’.

Maintenance and safety

As more systems within the helicopter become connected, they will generate an ever-increasing amount of data that can be used to optimise maintenance work and improve safety. According to Thales, the connected helicopter will allow engine and systems data to be transmitted to ground crews in real time which reduces misrepresentation of information and decreases unexpected accidents by allowing for maintenance to be predictive, rather than reactive.

Safety can also be improved through the continuous monitoring of flight data to identify anomalies in pilot behaviour, and redress them through appropriate training.

The risks of connectivity

Technology

As technology opens up a new world of opportunity for the rotor wing sector, it also exposes it to an increasing array of risks. As more online systems become connected, the points of entry for error, dysfunction and ill-intentioned hackers multiply.

Manufacturers and operators of connected helicopters will have to identify and quantify the exposure of these new cyber-related threats and create robust mitigation and risk transfer strategies to protect not just their technology, but their brand in an age when social media quickly exposes any perceived failings.

We have already seen this problem emerge in the airline industry, which has increasingly integrated technologies across business processes and aircraft in recent years. The industry now heavily relies on third-party IT networks – from immigration and customs to baggage processing. If these third parties suffer an attack or network outage, the ensuing disruption can result in significant financial exposure for the airline. In response, Willis Towers Watson has created CyFly, an insurance product that covers not only the loss of income caused by interruption to an airline’s own network, but also caused by outages sustained by a range of third parties.

As the rotor wing industry makes progress towards ever greater connectivity, we foresee similar issues arising for operators, and would welcome discussing potential risks and mitigation strategies with you.

People

According to the Willis Towers Watson 2017 Cyber Risk Survey, 72% of UK companies view cybersecurity as a top priority for their business. However, only 14% have embedded cyber risk management within their company culture. While the connected helicopter will require advanced technologies to protect it from hackers, operators will also need to ensure their employees exhibit cyber-aware behaviours. Ultimately, they are the first line of defence against any attack.

Alarmingly, 44% of UK employees surveyed believe that opening any email on their work computer is safe. However, the two most high-profile cyberattacks of 2017 (Not-Petya and WannaCry) were both enabled by employees opening malicious phishing emails. Such actions leave companies exposed to cyber risk even with state-of-the-art technology strategies. For connected helicopters being used for personal travel, this people risk factor could also extend to clients using the aircraft’s WiFi network.

In our opinion, organisations must increasingly look to foster a more cyber-savvy workforce; including the use of innovative employee engagement, talent management and reward strategies to fortify their cyber security.

The insurance outcome

As rotor wing technology advances insurers are monitoring developments with interest. At Willis Towers Watson we have a global market share of rotor wing business that allows us to fully understand the attitude of insurers to rotor wing risks and how this develops over time.

In the last few years, increased capacity in the rotor wing insurance market has led to fierce competition amongst carriers and in turn, a soft rating environment with insurance premiums reducing for the majority of operators. In parallel with rate reductions, operators have renewed their fleets with higher value aircraft. This had led to attritional (non-catastrophic) losses eroding a larger proportion of the premium base, leaving less margin for major losses.

Insurers may claim that rotor wing premiums are now inadequate for the risk accepted. In the last 12 months alone rotor wing insurers have settled in excess of $200m in major “total loss” hull losses; arguably we are at a tipping point. Amongst carriers, senior management are taking a long look at the viability of rotor wing business and whether it makes sense to deploy capacity in this market segment. We have already seen several insurers exit the rotor wing insurance market altogether. Many more are reducing premium targets and instructing their underwriters to be far more selective and conservative.

Accelerated technological advancement in the rotor wing sector will bring many new risks to the market. These will present both a challenge and opportunity for brokers and carriers. In order to gain competitive advantage in this space, they will need to redefine the way they look at risk.

Historically the insurance industry has reacted to events, creating solutions when disaster strikes so that in the future there is protection in place. Now the industry will also have to be proactive; anticipating the needs of customers and keeping pace with their requirements in a rapidly evolving technological landscape.

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