Estimated reading time 7 minutes, 13 seconds.
The helicopter electronic news gathering (ENG) sector has existed since the late 1950s, when cameramen carrying heavy cameras on their shoulders first captured images as they flew in different versions of Bell 47s. Then, in the late 1960s, the first turbine-engine ENG helicopters entered the market in the form of Bell 206 JetRangers, Fairchild-Hiller FH-1100s and Hughes 500s. Although the aircraft were more powerful and had higher speeds, they still relied on unstabilized shoulder-mounted camera systems that resulted in low-quality, shaky images.
It wasn’t until the early 1990s that gyroscopically stabilized cameras arrived in the helicopter ENG market, having completed the migration from the military to the civilian world. Gyro-stabilized cameras revolutionized ENG by allowing the camera operator to stay inside the aircraft and work the camera from a console; it also allowed the crew to work from higher altitudes, providing better coverage and reduced noise. Superior lenses also resulted in higher-quality images. However, the weight of these early gyro-stabilized systems demanded fairly powerful turbine-engine helicopters, such as the Airbus AS350/H125.
More recently, as technological improvements have enabled lightweight and more capable camera systems, Robinson Helicopter Company has seen considerable success with its piston-powered R44 Newscopter. Now, Robinson is building on that legacy with the development of a four-place ENG version of its R66 Turbine helicopter. There are now over 700 of the Rolls-Royce RR300-powered R66s flying around the world in almost every environmental condition, with the aircraft proving itself to be a powerful, reliable, and economical helicopter.
According to Robinson, the decision to move forward with the R66 Newscopter was driven by customer demand, with many inquiries from prospective customers in the United States, Australia, Brazil, Europe, and Canada. However, the company expects the R66 Newscopter to ultimately stimulate interest in countries with smaller helicopter markets, too.
The R66 Newscopter will fill a gap in the market between the R44 and more expensive turbine helicopters, such as the Airbus H125. As Robinson president Kurt Robinson pointed out, many news stations stipulate a turbine helicopter in their contracts, and “we wanted to be able to compete in those markets.”
The R66 Turbine’s substantial increase in performance over the R44 promises increased margins for ENG operators working in hot-and-high environments. “We know the R66 can easily work in the desert environment of Arizona during the summer, and around Denver on hot days — [and] these are the extremes in the U.S.,” said Robinson.
He added that some news stations require a news aircraft to be able to accommodate four people — something the R44 Newscopter can’t do, as the aft right seat is removed to accommodate the junction boxes for the camera equipment. “The R66’s increased size and baggage compartment allow room for four people, and the junction boxes for the camera equipment have been moved underneath the center rear seat [with] some also in the baggage compartment,” said Robinson.
Despite this increase in performance and capability, the R66 Turbine’s acquisition and operating costs remain low compared to other turbine-engine helicopters on the market. “We felt we could reduce the operating cost for news stations significantly when compared to the Airbus H125 or the legacy Bell 206 and 206L helicopters,” Robinson said. The R66 also maintains a fairly low noise signature, helping reduce the likelihood of noise complaints from the public.
Everything to Get the Shot
The standard R66 Newscopter incorporates a five-axis gyrostabilized camera system capable of 360 degrees of rotation, with an Ikegami HDL-F30 HD camera and Canon 22 to 1 HD lens. The talent cameras feature the Marshall Electronics CV345 with a Fujinon lens, and can be pointed at the copilot seat, aft left seat, or aft right seat. The aircraft also has an HD “lipstick” camera mounted on the tail for exterior shots. Optional equipment includes a longer lens nose gimbal (Canon 40 to 1 HD lens, plus optical doubler), a multiband scanner, AM/FM radio, and additional TV tuner provisions.
In the aft cabin, a 10-inch monitor on a swing mount can be stowed out of the way for takeoff and landing. Other notable features include a switcher that combines four functions into one (signal generator, distribution amp, down converter, and switcher); three FM two-way radios; a Nucomm ChannelMaster Lite microwave digital transmitter; peak 13.5 dB directional microwave pod; and TV tuner provisions.
Up front, the avionics package includes a Garmin G500H glass cockpit, Garmin GTR 225A radio with GTX 335 transponder; two Geneva digital audio panels; two seven-inch monitors; and the customer’s choice of a Garmin GTN 650 or 750. Robinson will also make additional optional equipment available, such as air conditioning.
Vertical spoke with Larry Welk, president of Los Angeles, California-based Welk Aviation — and an operator of seven larger ENG helicopters in Southern California — about the potential of the R66 Newscopter. “I’m not totally familiar with the equipment installed on the R66 Newscopter, but economics are key in this industry,” he said. “If the operating cost of the R66 is lower with the speed, endurance, performance, and camera/transmit package generally comparable to a AS350 B2 or Bell 206, I think Robinson might have a winner on its hands. When it is available to the market, the R66 Newscopter is an airframe package we will look at very closely.”
Sky Helicopters in Dallas, Texas, will be the launch customer for the R66 Newscopter. “We’ve been operating the R44 Newscopters for nearly 20 years, and currently have 10 in service at various locations around the U.S.,” Sky Helicopters owner Ken Pyatt told Vertical. “Our network news customers are thrilled with the helicopter’s reliability and quality of the camera and newsgathering equipment. We’re looking forward to the R66 Newscopter for some of our higher-altitude locations and customers that still specify turbine-engine airframes. The ability to seat pilot-plus-three is ideal for in-cockpit interviews and pooled newsgathering contracts.”
Kurt Robinson said the success of the R44 Newscopter was hugely helpful in developing the R66 Newscopter, having recorded numerous hours in a variety of different operating environments, markets, and TV cultures around the globe. “With this we were able to discuss our operators’ likes and dislikes, and requests for the future, in order to try to make the R66 Newscopter meet the needs of as many people as possible,” he said.
Robinson expects certification of the R66 Newscopter shortly after HAI Heli-Expo 2017, held in Dallas, Texas, March 7 to 9.