In 2006 when Airbus Helicopters first began developing its in-house avionics solution for helicopters, no such system existed for rotorcraft. “It was obvious that we had to develop our own avionics,” says Jean-Jacques Mevel, head of the Helionix programme at Airbus Helicopters. To ensure pilots got the best performance out of the helicopters, “we decided to develop our own autopilot and vehicle management system, because these functions are too closely linked with our design,” he says. “Nobody else knows the performance, characteristics, and intricacies of our machines.”
The resulting system, Helionix, broke the mould for intuitive, pilot-friendly avionics. Distinguished by an innovative cockpit layout which includes two to four multifunction screens, only the most pertinent details of a flight phase are displayed at any given time. “The key to Helionix is that it filters and presents the most relevant information when the pilot needs it,” says Mevel. As a pilot prepares to take off, for instance, Helionix brings up only that data (engine health, wind direction, traffic warnings, etc.) specific to the task, removing anything unnecessary and distracting.
“This sorting of information by flight phases is based on the experience of our pilots and the feedback of pilots who use it,” says Mevel. Indeed, another characteristic of Helionix is its continually evolving nature, as pilot feedback and customer requests are incorporated into each new version. One example is in advancements to the helicopter terrain avoidance and warning system (HTAWS). Airbus engineers are working closely with Heli Offshore, for instance, to improve the HTAWS standard for offshore missions for future versions of Helionix.
Helionix also helps maintenance teams, reducing the helicopter’s maintenance costs. With Helionix, more than a thousand parameters are monitored in real time and stored in its memory. These data are downloaded after each flight (some data can also be downloaded during the flight) to offer the possibility of anticipating unscheduled maintenance operations, thus improving direct maintenance costs and flight safety.
With Step 3, we have done what we first intended to with Helionix.
- Jean-Jacques Mevel, head of the Helionix programme at Airbus Helicopters
Customer requests were also at the heart of new features in Helionix Step 3— the system’s latest upgrade, first introduced in 2017 on an H175 delivered to NHV. “With Step 3, we have done what we first intended to with Helionix,” says Mevel. The software contains everything its developers initially envisioned, and more. The synthetic vision system (SVS), a standard on any avionics, now updates - in real time - 3D maps of the terrain with texture to help pilots tell woods from trees, for example. An assisted landing feature, Rig ‘n’ Fly, significantly aids approaches to offshore oil platforms. And the SAR mode enhances search and rescue missions with an optronics system and search radar.
The family concept
One of its more remarked-on attributes is the suite’s family concept; equipping not only the H175 and H145, it was recently certified on the H135 and is planned for the H160. “The feedback we get is fantastic,” says Jean-Jacques Mevel, head of the programme. “Helionix reduces the pilot’s workload, optimising the time he has for the mission and contributing to safety. But the most unexpected comment was about its universality. Pilots still find the same interface, the same look and feel, whatever the helicopter.”
“The decision to make Helionix a family concept was driven by safety,” says Mevel. “Even if some solutions were expensive to develop, the benefit to flight safety was so important that we just did it.” Helionix’s culmination, at least for now, goes so far as to let customers add their own obstacles (pylons, cranes, buildings) to the avionics’ terrain and warning system, matching what their pilots are actually seeing.
At the end of 2018, more than 320 Airbus helicopters will be flying with Helionix, reaching a possible 180,000 flight hours. Below, some operators share their experiences using the new avionics in their daily missions.