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How data analytics is making for smoother helicopter operations

By Thierry Dubois

Published on: June 1, 2020
Estimated reading time 8 minutes, 5 seconds.

The increasingly vast amount of flight data available is already resulting in some far-reaching benefits, from reduced maintenance to enhanced safety and invoicing.

The ability to gather increasingly vast amounts of data, and ever-enhancing data analytic capabilities, have been a common theme among the support and services divisions of airframe and engine manufacturers over the past few years. But this trend, combined with the growing number of helicopter operators digitalizing their record-keeping processes and sharing their data, is already resulting in some far-reaching benefits, from reduced maintenance to enhanced safety and invoicing.

NHV was one of the early adopters of Airbus’s Flyscan system for its fleet of 14 H175s. The system is now used by more than 25 customers in over 100 aircraft. Nicolas Gouhier Photo

According to Christoph Zammert, executive vice president of customer support and services at Airbus Helicopters, the number of aircraft sharing data with the company is rapidly increasing. From 700 in mid-2019, to over 1,000 by the end of the year. The company hopes to be gathering information from 3,000 aircraft by 2023. The greater the number of “connected” helicopters, the more exhaustive the database and the more accurate the analyses, according to Airbus’s engineers.

In parallel, the number of operators using Flyscan, a data monitoring tool for dynamic systems, is growing, too. “We have about 25 customers and more than 100 aircraft under Flyscan contracts,” said Zammert. They can be found in the offshore oil-and-gas, emergency medical services and military sectors.

Flyscan uses data from health and usage monitoring systems (HUMS). It covers dynamic components – such as rotors, gearboxes and rotor brakes – and thanks to weak signal analysis, Flyscan works in proactive mode and indicates if a threshold will soon be crossed. This allows an operator to plan maintenance, such as replacing a part within 50 flight hours, and thus avoid unscheduled works or even a mission failure.

Oil-and-gas operator NHV has been one of the early adopters for its fleet of 14 H175 medium twins. Airbus estimates the company has avoided two aircraft-on-ground situations in one year, for a daily cost of $39,000 (€35,000).

Flyscan is about to expand to other systems. “We are developing it for safety data-generating equipment where we can implement sensors – avionics, for instance,” said Zammert.

Stephanie Bonnefoy-Fourie, head of connected services at Airbus, added: “We are migrating unscheduled into scheduled maintenance.”

Sikorsky is also using HUMS data to identify patterns that precede unscheduled removals. “By fusing HUMS data, historical maintenance records and engineering knowledge, we’ve been able to create machine learning classifiers . . . so we can pre-position parts and help our customers plan maintenance opportunistically,” Eric Schnaible, Sikorsky communications manager, told Vertical.

Last year, Sikorsky added a new vibration sensor to the S-92’s tail rotor gearbox to detect bearing degradation earlier.

The Iris system allows real-time HUMS data transmission, and has been developed through a partnership between Metro Aviation and Sikorsky. PHI is using it in 19 of its S-92s. Ted Carlson Photo
The Outerlink IRIS system allows real-time HUMS data transmission. PHI is using it in 19 of its S-92s. Ted Carlson Photo

For health monitoring purposes, Safran is collecting data from 500 customers, accounting for 3,200 engines. “Our algorithms transform raw data into health indicators that are directly actionable by health monitoring experts,” said Amanda Martin, head of marketing and services. Local technical support teams can then make recommendations on maintenance and usage.

Operators send engine data manually or automatically, via the HUMS (on some Airbus helicopters) or Safran’s Helicom device.

“Over a six-month period, one of our major customers avoided one engine removal and two module removals,” thanks to Safran’s health monitoring services, said Thibault Pentel, health monitoring project manager.

Real-time benefits

Could the holy grail be real-time HUMS data transmission? In partnership with Outerlink, Sikorsky utilized Outerlink’s IRIS product to host its real-time HUMS system. PHI is currently operating it on 19 S-92s in the Gulf of Mexico, Australia, and Canada, according to Sikorsky.

Airbus appears not to be pressured to follow suit. “Today, we don’t have information or feedback from our customers that would encourage us to use real-time HUMS data transmission,” said Zammert. “No critical mass is appearing at this time.” The average flight lasts 40 minutes and waiting for the next landing to connect makes sense, he said.

Safran is about to unveil an intermediate level of service, featuring daily indicators for health monitoring.

A digital logcard is another way to make the most of data. Each component has a logcard where every installation and removal is described. A paper document, it is most often handwritten.

The digital logcard improves the reliability of information transmission, according to Bonnefoy-Fourie. Airbus has issued 4,500 for 20 customers, covering approximately 100 helicopters, she said.

Sikorsky uses optical character recognition to digitize logcards.

Corail Helicopters uses Airbus's FleetKeeper for its fleet of nine aircraft. The operator says it saves 1.5 man-hours a day by using the automated invoicing software. Anthony Pecchi Photo
Corail Helicopters uses Airbus’s FleetKeeper for its fleet of nine aircraft. The operator says it saves 1.5 man-hours a day by using the automated invoicing software. Anthony Pecchi Photo

The benefits of data analytics could also translate into longer maintenance intervals or moving to on-condition maintenance – and this is already a trend in North America. “The FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] is open to using analytics; it’s the responsibility of the requester to validate that the checks and balances are in place to protect data integrity and that the analytic results are reliable and repeatable,” said the Sikorsky spokesperson. On the S-92, inspection requirements have been recently opened on the high-speed shaft coupling and the tail-pitch-change shaft bearing. Both procedures use HUMS data – presented on Sikorsky’s ground-based application – to determine if maintenance is required.

In the past, HUMS data was used at a serial number level to adjust the retirement time of the S-92’s main rotor hub.

Progress on maintenance intervals is looking slower in Europe. “We have to provide substantiation to the airworthiness authorities with relevant samples and specific hardware tests to confirm analyses,” said Zammert. He said he hoped for a favorable outcome on this in 2020.

“We may extend the interval between engine washings,” says Safran’s Martin. In the future, operators may benefit from more customized maintenance programs, she added.

In addition to maintenance, digitalization can help daily operations in various ways.

Corail Helicopteres uses Airbus’s FleetKeeper, a digital technical logbook, along with an Enterprise Resource Planning software for its fleet of nine helicopters. After a flight, invoicing is automated, which makes a cumbersome and paper-intensive procedure obsolete, said Airbus. Corail calculates it saves 1.5 man-hours per day with FleetKeeper.

In terms of safety, flight data monitoring has been improved by giving context to recorded events. Terrain, weather phenomena, recent maintenance and more data are integrated into Airbus’s Flight Analyzer to provide context for the flight phase under analysis. “Helicopter Travel Munich is an early adopter customer of Flight Analyzer, with whom we are co-designing the solution,” said Courtney Woo, Airbus media relations manager.

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