Helicopter Investor 2020: Unmanned aspirations


Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) could provide a cheaper and safer alternative to helicopters on some firefighting and SAR missions, according to speakers at Helicopter Investor London 2020 this week.

Of the big-four helicopter OEMs, three (Bell, Airbus and Leonardo) are developing civil UAVs and Sikorsky is working on MATRIX – a retrofittable system that allows operators to fly large rotorcraft autonomously.

Firefighting is the civil operation that shows the most promise for UAV usage. Small drones have already seen thousands of hours of usage over the past decade in surveying and support roles.

“UAVs are making their way into firefighting operations. In 2010, about 200 hours were spent on r small UAVs to support firefighting operations. And, in 2018, that had grown to 10,000,” said Mark Clancy, president of HelicopterBuyer told delegates at Helicopter Investor London 2020.


An emerging market where drones are showing potential is in search and rescue (SAR). Specifically, drones can be used to locate vulnerable persons before sending out a rescue fleet.

According to Russ Torbet, Director, UK search and rescue for Bristow, the surveillance aspect of SAR constitutes 25% of the firm’s helicopter operations. Opting for small UAVs could save on fuel and manpower.

When queried as to whether Bristow could see drones supplanting helicopters, Torbet said: “Yes absolutely. We believe that UAVs have a role to play in performing search tasks and are far more cost effective than launching an S92 or AW189.

“In fact, we are embarking on some UAS activity in Caernarfon. We should be testing two Scheibel S-100 UAVs this week to determine how we can integrate manned and unmanned platforms.”


Full-scale helicopters with autonomous capabilities are also in development and have seen limited usage in military operations. The Kaman K-Max is a manned and unmanned helicopter that has flown unmanned cargo missions in Afghanistan and is undergoing civil certification with the FAA.

According to speakers at one panel at Helicopter Investor London 2020, Bell is rumoured to be developing an civil unmanned variant of the single-engine Bell 407.

The technology is already there in the Northrop MQ-8C Fire Scout – a UAV developed for military operations which the Bell 407 helicopter platform. The MQ-8C achieved initial operational capability last summer and is currently testing the OSPREY radar in preparation for first deployment.