In keeping with newly emerging and developing technologies, the needs and capabilities of helicopter operators are constantly changing. As such, the role equipment industry, which works to provide modifications and specialist equipment for helicopters, grows more and more important every day, according to Auckland-based manufacturer Oceania Aviation.
Oceania Aviation handles everything from aircraft and part sales to MRO, however it is the company’s Airborne Systems division – focused on role equipment design, manufacturing and installation – that is truly making waves, both in New Zealand and across the Tasman in Australia.
Role equipment, sometimes referred to simply as modifications, are any “specialist equipment that can expand the role and capability of a helicopter to suit the needs of its operator”, explains Oceania Aviation’s Airborne Systems manager Tony van Tiel. “It could be cargo pods, which allow the aircraft to carry hard-to-transport equipment, spray systems for aerial agriculture work, cargo hook systems to allow transport of loads external to the aircraft, and control systems that allow for the operation of these types of equipment.”
First founded by two tuna boat pilots as International Heliparts in 1992, Oceania Aviation evolved into its current full-service MRO business over the following decade. “We became Oceania Aviation in 1996 when we acquired Marine Helicopters and moved into our current Ardmore Airport site,” explains van Tiel. “By the early 2000s, the business had set up the Airborne Systems division, which worked out of our large Harvard Lane projects hangar.”
“The Airborne division started off small,” adds design and manufacturing engineer Adam Pattinson. “It was almost like a side project at first. It was essentially an optional additional service for customers who purchased aircraft from Oceania and wanted additional capabilities. So the team would provide modifications, largely cargo swings to start with, for existing customers who needed those additional capabilities.
“Since we were able to produce something that was personalised to their needs, and do it in-house, we were able to keep the costs down for that operator, and over time we just saw more and more customers making requests for this type of equipment.”
“From there, we grew pretty organically,” van Tiel adds. “The hangar got busier, it got bigger, we saw more and more aircraft sold to either tourist operators or agriculture operators, who asked us if we could help them acquire or build what they need, and we were able to design, build and install it all for them.”
Since then, the Airborne Systems division has continued to grow with no signs of slowing, and now boasts a bigger purpose-built workshop – where the team can provide specific and unique solutions for new and existing customers, right through from the design stage, to manufacturing, certification, and installation.
“These days, a lot of our role equipment products are built to order,” says van Tiel. “While we do try to keep stock in-shop, due to demand and our current capacity, it tends to go out the door faster than we can build it. We now have about 400 modifications that we own, as well as a dozen Supplemental Type Certificates (STCs), so it really feels like we’re forever expanding, and even though we just upgraded our facilities, we already feel like we’re running out of room.”
Understandably, modifying the capability of a helicopter, and thus the weight or balance of the aircraft, requires a vigorous certification process. According to van Tiel, this process can look quite different depending on the nature of the required modification. “The process of certification is dependent on whether the equipment or modification is a ‘one-off’, specific to one customer’s needs, or if it’s a change that can easily be applied to other aircraft of the same type, and that other customers could potentially need and use,” he says.
For modifications developed for one aircraft to be used across any aircraft of the same type, an STC is required, which can take some time to seek and approve, according to van Tiel: “STC’s require approval from the regulator, which means the approval process is a bit more stringent than a one-off. It’s because an STC means that the given modification can be fitted to any helicopter within that model range.
”Pattinson adds that the STC process generally takes longer as it requires additional testing measures, including flight tests, for bigger equipment. “A spray system for agricultural work, for example, can impact weight and balance a lot more, so flight tests are required before approval. So, while a one-off modification for one customer can take anywhere between one and four weeks, depending on the size of the design change, the process to secure an STC really depends on the time schedule of the regulator, be that NZCAA or CASA,” he explains.
“However, the more information you can provide the regulator, the quicker the process becomes,” van Tiel says. “If they have to keep coming back to you with questions or concerns, it can really drag out the whole process, so it’s better to get it right straight off the bat, and that’s why we try and do as much in-house as we can.”
Meanwhile, one-off modifications require more work for the Airborne Systems team, but approval for operations is generally achieved fairly efficiently through Oceania’s collaboration with Melbourne-based Part 146 company Five Rings Aerospace.
“If it’s a one-off modification, then we will generally come up with a tailored concept for the customer, design it and then get it approved pretty easily,” van Tiel explains. “For example, if we were to get an order for a spray system we don’t already produce, that whole process from beginning to end could take about up to a month to build and install – and cargo pods are even less complicated.
“So, Adam would work to tailor the design of the system to the exact needs of the client, and come up with an initial prototype. He produces all the drawings and documents, noting all changes and customisations required for certification. On our side of the hangar, we’ll be building the system, and once certification is organised through Five Rings Aerospace, we can install it. We’ll send those final specs through to the customer, then the aircraft comes in and our team will install it for the customer.”
Crossing the Tasman
Oceania Aviation’s Airborne Systems team say they can cater to almost any rotorcraft, however, have tended to focus on the aircraft most often used by Australia and New Zealand-based operators.
“The helicopter we see and work with most often would be the Airbus AS350, mainly because it’s quite a popular craft in New Zealand, especially for tourism and agricultural work,” van Tiel explains. “So, we will most often be producing agriculture spray systems and cargo pods for the AS350.
“We also see a lot of MD helicopters, both the MD500 and MD600 models. When it comes to Australian operators, the AS350 and the MD500 would definitely be the most popular. We’ve worked on and designed/manufactured products for Bell helicopters, too. However, we don’t see a lot of demand for them as we’re directly competing with American companies on role equipment for Bell helicopters, and these helicopters are a little less common in New Zealand.
“So, for now, that’s why we focus mostly on the AS350 and MD aircraft types for our markets. That said, we aren’t necessarily bound by helicopter type; our capabilities allow us to work on most any helicopter, as long as the client has the need.”
“I think the fact that we have such an in-depth knowledge of the AS350 and the MD500, it makes us an obvious choice for those operators in New Zealand or Australia to come to us for help,” Pattinson elaborates. “Within the company, and within our Airborne department, it’s so helpful just knowing the compatibilities or incompatibilities or the maintenance issues that you might raise with a modification. So having that depth of knowledge on those machines makes our certification process a lot more straightforward.”
While being a New Zealand-based company, Oceania Aviation has continued to expand its presence into Australia, in a process that the company has found relatively easy. “Our actual expansion and growth so far into the Australian market mostly just been through word of mouth, to be honest,” van Tiel says. “I think often operators come over here and see what we’ve got on offer, or pilots from here who’ve gone over there then go spread the word, which is great for us.”
“Australia has a system that will automatically accept a New Zealand STC and Form One under a bilateral agreement,” he continues. “And a specific one-off modification for a client just means getting CASA approval via our partnership with Five Rings Aerospace, much in the same way as in NZ. We consider that process to be really very simple.”
“In terms of operations, it’s really quite easy with that bilateral agreement, so Australian operators who come here know that our equipment will automatically be accepted back home,” Pattinson says. “So, that’s been a booster for us, but we haven’t actively pursued growth in Australia yet. We’re just starting to build the same reputation that we have in New Zealand over there, especially with our spray systems. I think once Australian operators see how well-built and how easy to maintain and customise our systems are, demand will continue to grow as it has already started to do.”
However, the company’s global expansion hardly ends at the other side of the Tasman Sea. “We’re also working on getting our AS350 spray system FAA certified shortly, which would mean we could send our most popular product to the USA and Canada,” van Tiel reveals. “This FAA certification is a bit of a timely process but we’re making good progress. Longer-term, we will most definitely be expanding more and more into the international market.”
A whole new (airborne) world
It’s undeniable that technological developments in the rotary space continue to improve and increase exponentially, which could pose both a challenge and opportunity for manufacturers like Oceania. “Things like pilotless machines, like drones and UAVs, that technology is definitely going to influence the industry and our business,” van Tiel says. “It might not be within the next few years, but it will definitely happen, and we need to adapt with it. We’re already seeing it in some of our markets. For example, in smaller agriculture jobs, drones can now go and spray crops. However, when it comes to taking over the whole capability and scale of a helicopter, I think we’re still a while away from that.”
The team noted that carbon fibre components and GPS technologies, along with other developments fundamental to the aerial industries they cater to, have evolved significantly in the last few years, and continue to develop at an increasingly fast pace.
“What we’re seeing in the role equipment space, particularly in agriculture, is the requirement for land-based systems to be adapted for helicopters, which are often heavy and cumbersome. So as time goes on, we’ll be producing smaller and lighter systems, and likely even more specialised and fit-for-purpose in aviation specifically,” van Tiel says. “And we already do a fair amount of that; we adapt and change what we need to and make lighter components. So basically, technologies and how they change will have an impact, and we just need to keep up with that.”
“In terms of our role, it’s just about bringing those technologies in to work in tandem with our systems,” Pattinson adds. “For example, through new technologies, we keep seeing better and better semi-automatic control systems like flow control systems that can use GPS to apply the right application rate for that land area. These technologies are constantly changing and evolving, getting smaller and faster. It does require us to be on our toes – as each new version comes out, we have to go back and re-certify the installation, whether it’s a small change or simply a different system that’s been installed on the helicopter. But it’s significant when we can adopt and offer those new capabilities to our clients.”
As such, emerging technologies don’t have to be a major disrupter to the role equipment manufacturing industry, in fact, keeping up with new and improved capabilities could see Oceania’s own offerings increase exponentially.
“I think the main way to look at it is, we provide a solution to an operator’s problem,” Pattinson explains. “We are constantly offering solutions to specific problems for our customers, and a lot of the time, we can take the accumulation of ideas and needs from different operators and actually come up with a solution that works for many. Which I believe is a capability that lends itself to changing as and when the industry itself changes, and those needs begin to change, too.”