HI Uplift: Bristow sees eVTOLs and helicopters ‘on a parallel path’


Pragmatic partnership between Bristow and eVTOL manufacturers to develop advanced air mobility aircraft and the business case to support their safe and efficient operation in parallel with helicopters was set out by the company’s Dave Stepanek at the London HeliTech event this week.

We’ve received a lot of questions about whether we’ve planned to replace our helicopters with eVTOLs and advanced air mobility [AAM]”, the company’s executive vice president, chief transformation officer told Helicopter Investor. “The answer is what we see as a parallel path and new market opportunities.”

Bristow’s initial eVTOL customers will be ones who use helicopters today – but they will be using them in a different way, he said. For example, the energy business is structured around hubs such as Aberdeen, Scotland, Louisiana, US, Lagos, Nigeria and Rio de Janeirio, Brazil. From each hub, people and supplies radiate out to offshore platforms and rigs in helicopters and boats, after delivery by land vehicle. Stepanek foresaw a much bigger role for the delivery of supplies by helicopters and eventually eVTOLs.

It’s a transport evolution that promises lower costs – but how much lower cost has yet to be determined, said Stepanek. (There will be more on cost savings shortly). Replacing transport by car and truck would benefit not just cost but also safely.

Then there’s the case for emergency transport of vital components. If a key rig component fails, forcing the facility to close for two-or-three days’ production while awaiting the delivery of new part, the cost could soar to about $200m of lost cash flow, according to Bristow.

Dispatching the vital part to the rig from the logistic centre by an eVTOL, manufactured by one of Bristow’s partner companies – such as a Beta Technologies Alia aircraft – could minimise crucial down time and cost. “It would be a hotshot from the logistic centre directly out to the platforms,” Stepanek tells us. “That’s the dream right now of many, many oil companies.”

Taking viable goods to remote locations – such as the Scottish Highlands – from distribution centres potentially at lower costs and higher reliability is “a real game changer”. But the concept needs to be proved first, he added. “Helicopters will be working in tandem at the same facilities,” he added.

Bristow has focused many of its eVTOL investments, at least initially, in the transport category. These are aircraft that can carry a payload of several hundred pounds and people over a distance of 40 to 300nm with existing technology. “We are not interested in flying people offshore [in eVTOLs] straight away or urban air mobility. We want to prove it to ourselves first – that we can operate the aircraft safely and reliably,” said Stepanek. “We are building a business with a parallel path alongside helicopters.”

But how does Bristow define AAM aircraft? These are aircraft that use distributive electric propulsion systems – whether the electricity comes from a battery, a hybrid electric system or other alternatives such as hydrogen. It’s a more than attractive prospect for Stepanek, who can look back on a 40-year career in aviation (including closing the first sale of a Sikorsky S92).

“They [eVTOLs] take away all the complexities of what you need for vertical flight today: The transmissions, the big rotors, all the dampening and the hydraulically assisted flight controls, all the transmission with oil and drive chain. All the things that drive complexity and cost.”

Talking of cost savings, Bristow believes eVTOLs’ direct operating costs to be between 50% to 70% lower than those incurred by helicopters – including power. (This is based on its analysis of operating costs for similar weight class and passenger carrying capacity of different aircraft models). Energy costs are not included in the operating costs of Bristow helicopters, as the operator is re-imbursed by the customer for the fuel costs it incurs.

“Can we build a business model with the technology that exists today? The answer is yes. We’ve taken our experience of 75 years of flying vertical aircraft and put that to work in cost modelling.” Pictured is a representation of Elroy Air’s Chaparral hybrid VTOL tracking a parallel course to an S92 helicopter. The Chaparral makes use of both conventional turbines and electric propulsion. 

Stepanek is keen to stress how the operator is working in tandem with its industry partners including: Electra.aero, Beta, Eve, Elroy Air, Vertical, Overair, Lilium and Volocopter. “We are not getting into the science, certification or type of design,” he says. “But we are talking about how we are going to operate the aircraft and how we are going to maintain it. To understand what is necessary to turn this into a commercial product our customers to build a sustainable business.”

So, Bristow’s fleet of 240 helicopters can look forward to an assured future operating in tandem with eVTOLs. Philipp Schartau, associate partner at consultancy firm McKinsey & Company, also foresees eVTOLs working successfully in partnership with helicopters. “You would have to be very bullish to forecast the end of the helicopter,” he told Helicopter Investor. “But with the right investment, we will see many additional services from the AAM sector that could complement the helicopter.”

Aside from building a compelling business strategy for eVTOLs, Stepanek, at Bristow, highlighted the imperative of delivering the highest safety standards from the outset. “Your kid’s grandkids are going to be flying in these things – so it’s really important we get it right,” he told show-goers. “And if they are not flying in them, then shame on us because we will have failed.”

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