Helicopter Operators See Drones as a Business Opportunity
March 10, 2015
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  • As of February, the FAA had granted 26 exemptions to operators to fly unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, commercially. That activity wasn’t allowed before Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. Section 333 of the act, titled “Special Rules for Certain Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” gave the agency the discretion to exempt small drones that it determines can be flown safely for specific operations—that is, until it drafts a uniform regulation. There were more than 300 applications awaiting the agency’s approval.

    The first “Section 333” approvals illustrated some of the many missions commercial drones can perform, such as filming movie sets from above, monitoring construction sites, assessing crop health, producing real-estate video or inspecting flare stacks on offshore oil platforms. Many of those drones, though, were rotary-wing aircraft, and that presents both a challenge and an opportunity for the helicopter industry. Will small, inexpensive-to-operate drones replace helicopters in some roles, such as for moviemaking, aerial surveying and newsgathering? Or will drones fatten the portfolio of services that current helicopter operators already provide?

    “We have acknowledged the technology, that it’s already here and that it’s going to proliferate,” Matt Zuccaro, Helicopter Association International (HAI) president, said of unmanned aircraft. “We believe it has to be done properly, with the right training and infrastructure. We do believe that there is an opportunity for helicopter operators (to operate UAVs) as an adjunct to their current operations.”

    Unmanned aircraft may be emergent as a commercial force, but they are not new. Nor are helicopter operators unfamiliar with them. Jay Carlson of Rotor F/X, an operator, flight training school and MRO in Van Nuys, Calif., became involved with UAVs in the mid-1990s. Then it was to assist defense contractors with research, development and testing of military-oriented UAVs and sensor payloads. In the early 2000s, as their wartime use in Afghanistan and elsewhere brought UAVs to prominence, Rotor F/X participated on a committee standards organization ASTM formed to advise the FAA on drafting a commercial drone regulation.

    “We realized in about 2004 that the 2005 target date [the FAA] set was never going to happen,” Carlson recalled. “Here we are 10 years later, just getting the ball rolling. We kind of stepped back a little bit. At that time we were designing airframes and actually manufacturing units for the supposed coming market. We went back into R&Dand assisting other companies in testing sensors and flying their payloads.”

    The FAA famously issued a policy notice in February 2007 that prohibited operators from using unmanned aircraft for “business purposes,” chilling the market. The 2012 legislation reopened the door to commercial use, if only incrementally. Last September and October, the agency granted the first exemptions under Section 333 to seven small aerial photo and video production companies associated with Hollywood. “Now the door is wide open,” Carlson said. Customers “have got all of these concepts and ideas they’ve been sitting on for two years.” Since the first FAA approvals, he said, Rotor F/X has provided pilots and UAVs for two exemption holders and participated in eight productions.

    Rotor F/X designs and custom builds proprietary UAVs capable of carrying large-format cameras for the film and television industry, as well as for aerial mapping applications. The MR14 multi-rotor helicopter the company features on its website was assigned the tail number N33AX in October, making it one of the first FAA-registered multi-rotor UAVs.

    It is still a niche business. “The (unmanned) industry as such right now, on a serious level, on the upper end, consists of all of that,” Carlson said. He is not concerned that unmanned aircraft will supplant helicopters in some roles when the market expands. “The UAVs are just another tool in the toolbox,” he said. “A lot of things couldn’t possibly be done with a helicopter. That’s what these are good at.”

    Asked if he sees a boom market coming for unmanned aircraft services, Carlson said: “I’ve always believed that, going back to the beginning. It’s just getting through the regulatory hurdles.”

    Similar to Rotor F/X, Precision Helicopters, of Newberg, Ore., is a flight training school, charter operator andMRO facility. With a fleet consisting of two Sikorsky S-61s, the Airbus AS350B2, Hughes 500, Bell 206 JetRanger and Sikorsky-Schweizer 300, it performs external-load, firefighting, law enforcement, aerial photography, agricultural and sightseeing missions. Last year it took delivery of the first Guimbal Cabri G2 light piston-engine helicopter in North America.

    Precision also has an unmanned aircraft division that it plans to expand. Tracing its origins to a venture that Evergreen Helicopters once operated, Precision’s Integrated division has several years of experience flying small drones under certificates of authorization the FAA grants to public entities. “We’ve been flying UAVs in the national airspace system since 2007, flying for universities and public agencies,” said Matt Parker, Precision’s unmanned aircraft systems director. “Our personnel have flown every UAV in the Department of Defense arsenal. We also have flown UAVs that didn’t make the DOD’s procurement timeline.”

    The company’s unmanned arsenal includes the Sensintel (now Raytheon) Silver Fox and Elbit Skylark fixed-wing aircraft and the Vanguard ShadowHawk unmanned helicopter, vehicles that can be operated from a mobile ground station Parker describes as a “Jeep Rubicon on steroids.” In January, Precision announced that it had placed the launch order for the Aerovel Flexrotor, a vertical takeoff and landing UAV that also operates as a conventional fixed-wing aircraft. Aerovel is headed by Insitu co-founder Tad McGeer, known for achieving the first Atlantic crossing by a UAV with his Aerosonde in August 1998.

    As the commercial market opens, Precision plans to model its UAV group on the requirements of a Part 135 air operator certificate, replete with a chief pilot and a director of operations. A Section 333 exemption to fly drones “is a good start, but it won’t cover everything,” Parker said. Nor would a restricted-category type certification for a certain aircraft and mission, such as those the FAA granted for the Insitu ScanEagle and the AeroVironment Puma in Alaska, suffice for unrestricted operations, he said.

    Parker believes the helicopter industry should seize the moment and drive the requirements of the eventual FAAsmall unmanned aircraft regulation. “There’s a big disparity between reality and hype, between pretenders and contenders” for the commercial drone market, he said. “If we as the professional aviation industry take charge of how we can implement this, we will do better than having non-aviators create a rule for us.”

    HAI is taking steps to engage helicopter operators as well as drone start-ups on a new unmanned aircraft committee it is assembling. “Who better to operate UAVs, in essence, than helicopter operators? It’s a business opportunity,” said Zuccaro. “This is something we can do to extend what we do because of our expertise in vertical operations.”