In the same way that the Middle Eastern airlines appear to be driving the specifications of next-generation widebodies, input from the world's major oil and gas operators is delivering evolution in the commercial helicopter world.
Today's medium and large commercial helos—such as the Sikorsky S-92, Airbus EC175 and Bell's 525 Relentless—are not merely spin-offs from military rotorcraft projects but are increasingly driven by new trends in the oil and gas industry.
The high price of hydrocarbons over the last five years has helped to drive a major exploration effort, and the world's energy giants are investing heavily in new projects that previously had not been considered viable in terms of cost or risk. New drilling technology also has allowed the companies to take advantage of pockets of hydrocarbons that earlier techniques could not reach or to set up facilities in regions where environmental factors may once have prevented them.
One main factor driving the OEMs is range. Early offshore wells in the Gulf of Mexico would have been visible from the shore, but increasingly, the oil and gas companies are exploring well beyond the horizon, 200-250 nm from shore, presenting a challenge for the helicopter operators that support them. The typical measure of oil and gas helicopter capability is radius of action, flying to the rig and, if necessary, conducting a missed approach—perhaps because of poor weather or a fouled deck—and returning to home base.
“Offshore exploration and production is reaching unprecedented distances from shore, and it now depends on what the industry is willing to explore in terms of new products to reach those distances,” says David Martin, vice president of energy at Sikorsky. “We have looked at these rig sizes, and the more remote they get, the larger the crew sizes are. Even with automation, those crew sizes are remaining high, so the further they are from shore, the bigger they tend to be, which drives the need for high capacity [on the helicopter].”
Roberto Garavaglia, head of strategy at AgustaWestland, notes that “there's a niche market in the greater-than-180 nautical-mile [sector], the growth of which is expected to be significant in the coming decade.”
There are an estimated 8,000 offshore production installations worldwide, compared with around 600 exploratory drilling rigs, and it is the support of the production platforms that provides the operators with the largest chunk of their income, while ad hoc income from temporary contracts brings in much of the remainder.