Helicopters vs. UAV debate highlights Helitech International
One of the most compelling talking points at this year's Helitech International is the "manned versus unmanned" debate. Is the growing popularity of UAVs impacting the traditional helicopter market? The short answer is "no" but that does not mean traditional helicopter manufacturers should be resting on their laurels.
In a fascinating session within the Helitech International Business and Strategy Conference held yesterday afternoon at ExCeL London, analysts, operators and regulators shared their views on the helicopter versus UAV debate. It is clear that the unmanned systems market is booming, but current regulatory constraints, particularly regarding operating Beyond Visual Line of Sight, mean their widespread use is still a long way from reaching its full potential and seizing a significant share of the helicopter market.
The helicopter market outlook remains strong. International analysts Frost & Sullivan estimate there are currently approximately 27,000 civilian helicopters in use around the world. By 2035 that figure is likely to decline by just some 3,100 units. This is not necessarily because helicopters are being replaced by UAVs but that helicopters themselves are getting ever more efficient. They are being designed from the outset with a multi-mission capability which reduces the need for a variety of platforms for different tasks. For at least the next two decades, helicopters are likely to remain the platform of choice for passenger services, search and rescue and law enforcement.
There are, however, other sectors where UAV use is starting to grow. Long-endurance surveillance and monitoring, dull or dangerous missions and mapping or 3D modelling are tasks ideally suited for unmanned systems.
But it is not always the case that a wider use of UAVs is stealing work share from helicopters. Angus Benson-Blair, chairman of the Association of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems UK, says that one of the fastest growing sectors in the UAV business is film and media. Not only are production companies with budgetary pressures now using UAVs where previously they would have used an expensive helicopter, there is now an increase in demand from smaller companies who would never have considered using a helicopter but can afford an unmanned vehicle for overhead footage. Elsewhere, surveys that were previously done on foot can now similarly be accomplished by UAV.
As Wendy Welsh, Air Operations Manager of Network Rail, freely admits, aerial platforms – both manned and unmanned – have their uses. But she is “platform agnostic”: it is a question of using the right platform for the right job. In her company’s case, safety, access, reliability and efficiency are all improved by using either a helicopter or a UAV, but while helicopters are most suited to doing linear inspections of railway lines and tracks, specialist surveys and discrete tasks or hard to access sites are better suited to an unmanned vehicle.
In the short-to-medium term, UAV technology is unlikely to be a serious threat to the established helicopter market, even though it is currently growing at a great pace. Peter Norton, Chief Executive of the British Helicopter Association, believes that UAV technology provides “opportunities and synergies” for the existing aerospace industry. Manned and unmanned systems will continue to coexist, but ultimately the human pilot – whether on board a platform or controlling it from a ground station – is the most important tool and utterly irreplaceable.