Estimated reading time 10 minutes, 58 seconds.
Helicopters by their very nature are complex machines, and so are the specialist equipment and systems that occupy their interiors. Getting the right design and functionality for crews to carry out specific missions with greatest effect is a formula that is being developed Down Under by HeliMods.
Riding a wave of innovation and investment, this medium-size aerospace technology company has been delivering bespoke helicopter modifications and internal configurations fitted with the latest technologies, primarily for emergency medical services (EMS), search-and-rescue (SAR), and law enforcement operators, both locally and internationally, for more than 17 years.
HeliMods’ facility is headquartered at Caloundra Aerodrome, an hour north of Brisbane on Queensland’s laid-back Sunshine Coast. The plethora of awards hanging on the walls tell the story of the company’s entrepreneurial journey since 2002. Will Shrapnel, HeliMods’ founder and managing director, says the early days were focused on design and certification work in support of maintenance, with customized modifications a minor side interest.
“The modification projects grew from being a ‘now and then’ sort of thing into one day a week, then a couple of days a week,” Shrapnel told Vertical during a visit late last year. “Within three to five years, probably half of my work was designing and incorporating minor modifications into helicopters. From there, the opportunities grew in designing and developing products, and I started to employ people.”
Then came larger contracts. When the Queensland government procured the country’s first fleet of Leonardo AW139s in 2008/2009, HeliMods got very busy designing and developing products for modern helicopters.
HeliMods grew — and so did its workforce — as it continued to invest in contemporary software and hardware technologies. Shrapnel, a pilot and licensed aircraft maintenance engineer, attributes the success and growth of the business — now recognized globally — to the right formula of technology investment and recruitment of talented people.
“We actually have a global workforce,” Shrapnel said. “We’ve got talent that has really sought us out from around the world. I’m one of the few Sunshine Coast locals. People with different backgrounds from different organizations are moving here to be part of this journey of innovation and investment in tech and talent.”
A youthful workforce
HeliMods has attracted a younger team, with a lot of degree-qualified engineers, programmers, and technicians who are comfortable being in the digital space because of the company’s big investment in technology.
“The investment in talent that matches our technology gives us a demographic shape that’s young, that’s energetic, that really wants to drive technology to the limits,” said Shrapnel. “In our engineering team, we have just under 30 CAD workstations where we drive all our projects from. Then there’s the production team that runs and supports manufacturing activities. Depending on where we are in project cycles, we have up to 50 people.”
From the very early days of the business, when HeliMods started to develop its unique solutions and products, Shrapnel invested in computer-aided design and engineering that was probably disproportionate to the size of his team back then.
“I really wanted to build a foundation that could scale a digital enterprise, where we could reuse a lot of our data,” said Shrapnel. “Getting into that whole environment is a mindset. It’s a long-term investment to really understand what technologies to bring in, when and where. I guess what we have done in this space has set a new standard of sorts for the rest of industry to look at.”
The development of its homegrown Powered Aero Loader (PAL) product has put the company on the map. The HeliMods PAL is a zero-lift, push-button operated powered stretcher loader system that offers effortless loading and unloading by paramedics and aircrew between helicopter and ambulance vehicles.
PAL was the product of years of work and significant investment and is now in use in Canada with Ornge — Ontario’s provider of air ambulance services. PAL systems entered service on a rolling schedule throughout 2019 at each of Ornge’s eight helicopter bases across the province.
“We’re really proud of the work the team did, and it’s been a great result for Ornge,” said Shrapnel. “It is an amazing story and amazing outcome for an organization that wanted to really raise the bar for standards in patient care and paramedic care and bring a better outcome for their community.”
Walking out on to the hangar floor for a tour around the facility, there is an immediate sense of professionalism. The clean and well-organized hangar space — one of several occupied by HeliMods at the airport — houses an array of machining, fabrication and assembly workshops, all with the latest in equipment. A prototyping floor holds a full-scale one-to-one AW139 mock-up fuselage.
Virtual reality as a tool
HeliMods’ “wow factor” is provided by virtual and augmented reality tools, which are key to creating its custom fit-outs. Donning a HoloLens headset, a customer can climb aboard a physical AW139 mock-up to look around the cabin and cockpit and “virtually” touch and see their chosen interior configuration. In addition to holograms, the mock-up can incorporate real components during the design and creation of a cabin configuration, making it a sensory-rich experience for the customer.
The HeliMods facility is set up so that a customer and their team of end users can essentially move into and become part of the design development process.
“They’ve got access to our whole engineering team and our whole tech stack so that, during the course of a day or a few days, they can actually transform requirements into in-cabin configurations that are going to work,” said Shrapnel. “We will either produce physical objects like 3D print or will make real-size products, or we can actually install holograms or virtual reality overlays in the space.
“We are portable with our hologram representations of a whole aircraft environment, so we can now take them to a customer and actually install them in an empty aircraft to show them what they’re going to get,” he said. “We will just take a HoloLens headset and you can actually immerse in the environment where it’s mixed reality — real physical objects with holograms — and our team can be working on those same environments back here. So it’s a pretty amazing process.”
As a counterpart to the work they do in the virtual space, HeliMods also does a lot of work in bringing the physical into the digital domain. Investments in 3D scanning technologies let HeliMods capture highly accurate physical representations of any interior, product or component, converting them into fully rendered digital models.
“Our 3D scanning tech lets us go out to a fleet and take a representation of an aircraft, down to 40 microns in accuracy,” said Shrapnel. “We can send that [3D file] directly to our local engineering team here so they’re working on a global problem instantly.”
HeliMods is making further investments — like Wi-Fi and software — in other technologies around future cabin environments. Taking a whole-of-cabin approach will allow more information to be shared between aircrew, medical crew, and crews on the ground. HeliMods is currently working on new Australian state government police aircraft, including three new AW139s, which are expected to enter service soon.
“The technology they will have represents the absolute leading edge of the industry for sure,” said Shrapnel. “We’re developing a number of new innovations in cabin fit-outs for the aerial policing role. The work that our teams are doing in the tactical aircraft space will also bring significant benefit back into HEMS aircraft.”
Designing for efficient maintenance and adaptability are a key focus to every HeliMods project. When a helicopter leaves the hangar, the partnership throughout the life of the machine is just beginning.
“Operators of fleets have historically looked at a five- or 10-year procurement cycle, whereas we promote a more progressive approach that says, ‘As soon as new technology becomes available, we’ll let you know about it.’ Then we can work on how that might be integrated,” said Shrapnel. “You have a helicopter that can operate and do its job, and if its job changes, then then you’ve got a tech partnering organization that can bring that change to bear. We aim to partner with organizations that can share a view and understand a value in taking a long-term view to how they want to operate, rather than a short-term view of, ‘How do I save five or 10 percent on an acquisition?’
“That’s some of the unique work that we’re doing through current state government programs. Our key customers have worked with us to implement configuration lifecycle management, allowing us to bring them new technologies as soon as they’re available, so they can always have the latest and the best on board their aircraft.”
Having an in-house prototyping capability, coupled with advanced machining and manufacturing, lets the engineering team at HeliMods conduct tests and trials to understand which solution will work the best. At times, engineers will develop concepts in composites and alloys to determine the best material for the product.
“That’s where we are quite unique,” said Shrapnel. “We would be one of the few organizations globally that has an engineering team that’s so connected to its production capability. So our engineering team really needs to understand its options in materials and production and know-how to design to get that product into the aircraft.”
With contemporary technology in the hands of the right people, that adage of “the sky is the limit” rings true for HeliMods, as Shrapnel keeps a close eye on the future of the modification business. If Shrapnel is awake at night, he’s either working or giving serious thought to the future opportunities of the aviation industry as it transforms and grows to embrace the next generation of vertical lift.
“Those new and emerging technologies do require a different breed of engineering, team, and approach — I can’t wait to see the multicopter space really work well,” said Shrapnel. “There’s going to be so many complementary roles for some of the short-range, short-duration flight for vertical lift, particularly in dense, urban environments. The mod space is still going to be really interesting, because those in the multicopter space and electric air vehicle space, they’ll still be mission-configured aircraft.”
Over the next few years, HeliMods anticipates it will double in size — both in building layout and staff capacity — to support offshore production lines as well as supporting helicopter fleets in other geographies.
“A doubling in our size will probably be more like a 10-times in our effect,” Shrapnel said. “We’ll be able to spread out as a team and then tackle some of the new and emerging problems in different air domains. It’s a pretty exciting future.”