On March 21st, 2017

Is the Helicopter Industry thinking too small when it comes to UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems)?

While we were at the Helicopter Association International (HAI) Heli-Expo this past week, we saw many different applications of unmanned systems within the helicopter industry.  Most companies that have UAS programs are using them for inspection services, but we also saw many law enforcement and search and rescue applications.  In general, the operation of unmanned systems seems to fit well in the helicopter industry because of the pre-existence of an aviation safety culture, experience with rotorcraft, and the prevalence of pilot-related knowledge, skills, and abilities.

We met a lot of great people at HAI. It seems like the industry is excited to see where UAS will lead, but some were concerned about the cannibalization of traditional helicopter uses and the displacement of manned-system pilots.  However, we wonder if the helicopter industry is thinking too small.

Generally, we saw that the use of Unmanned Systems by helicopter companies hasn’t moved beyond the use of small-scale UAS (e.g. quad copters), presumably because the FAA’s Part 107 regulation caters to small UAS.  However, with the existing Section 333 and new regulations on the horizon, it seems that they are missing a strategic opportunity to think through the large-scale use of UAS in their industry - and begin to position themselves to take advantage of this budding market.  How they position themselves may mean the difference between the helicopter industry facing a great deal of external competition and suffering a downturn, or embracing this technological shift and boosting profits.

Large-scale UAS were not a topic that we heard at the HAI Heli-Expo this year.  We would have liked to see more about unmanned helicopters, unmanned aerial farming machines, and other large-format unmanned systems.  Helicopter operators should be thinking past the use of small quad copters and considering larger-scale unmanned operations.  Likewise, helicopter leasing companies should be thinking about financing models associated with large-scale unmanned systems.  These are major shifts in the marketplace that other (non-helicopter) companies will happily fill the void, but, with a little bit of strategic planning, a helicopter company should be poised and ready to fill.

Airbus unveiled a new video showing a concept for a flying car called Pop.Up at the Geneva International Motor Show that same week, but news of the new concept was not present on the HAI Heli-Expo floor.  Generally, we were surprised that helicopter manufacturers were not pushing large-scale UAS concepts.  We did see a few new helicopters, such as the Bell FCX-001, but no unmanned systems.  This is currently a large gap in the marketplace and potentially large oversight.  Large-scale UAS concepts and innovations could serve a vital role in helping to envision potential formats and applications of unmanned systems and could help to shape the future of the industry.  I would assume that helicopter manufacturers would be leading this charge, but there was no such presence at the Expo.

Evans Incorporated is excited for next year’s HAI Expo, where we hope to see more large-format UAS concepts.  As an established company with years of experience as broad-based business consultants, we look for opportunities to help companies evaluate the UAS legislative landscape and build an organizational strategy to capitalize on the budding UAS industry.  Not only does the Evans aviation team address the core programmatic and operational challenges of UAS, but also ensures success through human-centered stakeholder management, project and program management, risk management, communications, facilitation, and training – an integrated blend of capabilities the Evans has integrated into its CAARMA™ Solutions.  We look forward to providing these services to helicopter companies so that they can stay ahead of the UAS trend.

-Greg Caramanica