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Sea Change: This Software Is Making Offshore Choppers Fly Safer

Automation and technology have made working on an oil rig easier, but it’s still a tough job — in no small part because of the weather. In the North Sea, for example, many rigs face howling gales, frigid waters and crashing waves as high as 40 feet. As a result, a very tricky part of a rig job remains getting there. Helicopter pilots must navigate complex approaches and, despite precautions and a focus on safety, there are a number of crashes every year.

Oil and gas companies have been working with HeliOffshore, the global safety association for the offshore helicopter industry, and other partners and government agencies to make these flights as safe as possible. The steps and precautions include extra maintenance checks and new helicopter design features. But in an era where everything is getting connected to the internet, data also could help.

HeliOffshore has recently partnered with GE Aviation on a project that will use data from onboard sensors and other sources to analyze helicopter operations and inform best practices. Commercial airlines have done something similar for decades, using a system that collects and analyzes aircraft and pilot performance data from “routine” flights. They also study information from other sources, such as accident reports, safety analyses and voluntary self-reporting. The Federal Aviation Administration has compiled all of this input into the Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing system (ASIAS). The goal is to find the root causes of problems and determine the best ways to minimize risk.

Above: Oil rig in a winter storm day. Image credit: Getty Images. Top Image: Helicopter pilots must navigate complex approaches. Image credit: HeliOffshore.

Helicopter safety monitoring, however, still focuses largely on an aircraft’s maintenance and mechanical issues like excessive vibrations or engine problems. HeliOffshore and GE Aviation, which makes engines for passenger planes, fighter jets and helicopters, are now developing the offshore industry’s own version of this massive database. The goal of the Safety Data Management System (SDMS) is to provide offshore helicopter pilots with standardized safety guidelines. “Collecting and assessing information globally takes helicopter safety to a new level,” says Chris Solan, senior product manager at GE Aviation. “This data will help us to understand day-to-day operational performance better and to work as an industry to further enhance support to frontline operations.”

Solan believes that better analyzed helicopter data will yield better safety procedures for takeoff, flight and landing and also will provide a better sense of which risks make sense and which should be avoided.

Later this year, GE Aviation and HeliOffshore will begin developing a universal method for gathering and organizing data, which right now is done fairly piecemeal. Then GE engineers will devise ways to use Predix, GE’s software platform for the Industrial Internet, to process and automatically analyze the flight data. “This program will enable HeliOffshore and its operators to aggregate data and transform it into accurate and meaningful information,” Solan says. “We’re leapfrogging over years of evolution that had to take place in the fixed-wing world.”

Ultimately, Solan says, this will transform the offshore helicopter business by enabling them to be safer and to benchmark their performance within their companies — and against their peers. “We’re taking flying out of the realm of speculation and into the realm of data-driven analysis,” Solan says. “We’re helping pilots make better decisions.”

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