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.

Brazil is one of the biggest growth areas for helicopter operators. State-owned energy company Petrobras has been exploring the pre-salt layer, a geological formation off Brazil's southern coast, where there may be as many as 12 billion barrels of oil, the company conservatively estimates. This has prompted a major investment in new helicopters by local operators to support those efforts, and international operators such as Bristow and CHC have in turn invested in those local operators. With 38 major production projects underway in the region between now and 2020, the number of helicopters serving the platforms may need to double to 180 by 2018 from 90 today.

Analysts long ago predicted the decline of the North Sea oil and gas industry, but use of new drilling technology has prompted new finds, and indeed the offshore helicopter operators supporting these platforms are as busy as ever. Even if the wells ran dry tomorrow, the work would not stop overnight—the decommissioning phase of shutting down and dismantling the platforms is expected to take 10-12 years and require a significant helicopter presence.

Oil companies such as Shell have helped to nail down key requirements that have improved helicopter safety and driven rotorcraft development. For instance, health and usage monitoring systems (HUMS) are increasingly delivered as standard on medium and large helicopters; operators that do not want HUMs must pay to have them removed. A development of HUMS, the Helicopter Operations Monitoring Program (HOMP), takes information from the HUMS and flight data recorder, enabling the oil companies to monitor sorties and identify potential operational risks and management to spot differences from everyday flying and take preventive measures, if necessary.

“Safety is a profitable investment,” Garavaglia says. “The end customers of offshore transport services undoubtedly are oil and gas industry companies. They put forward their own requirements to service providers, and they've very often set standards that can be even more stringent and demanding than the very latest ones set by certification authorities.”

“We see less of the personal preference for types in the industry than we used to see, and now what drives our aircraft purchases is the operators' buying decisions [and] their ability to generate value for their clients,” Martin says. “Oil majors are announcing cost-reduction initiatives, and that's where aircraft like the S-76 will bring value, save money in fuel costs, operating costs and drive availability. That's where they are basing their buying decisions.”

In markets such as the Gulf of Mexico, which were previously dominated by small light and twin-engine rotorcraft, operators are concentrating their efforts on fleets of large and medium helicopters, with which they fly hops to multiple platforms rather than sending two or three small ones to service platforms individually.

Speed is likely to be the next game-changer in the oil and gas market. The ability to fly at greater speed enables operators to fly more missions in one day, potentially reducing the number of helicopters required to service the market. “Tiltrotors fly over the weather at high speed and for longer ranges. . . . Thus, [they are] looking potentially attractive to the offshore industry,” Garavaglia says.

Tap the icon in the digital edition of AW&ST for an interactive map of major offshore oil and gas helicopter operations around the world, or go to AviationWeek.com/oghotspots

History of Offshore Oil and Gas Helicopter Operations Crew transport flights by helicopter to offshore oil and gas industry installations is almost as old as the commercial use of rotorcraft, and it has provided helicopter manufacturing with some of its most important milestones in safety, technology and innovation:

1946 Engineers erect the first oil well at sea, beyond sight of shore in the Gulf of Mexico

1948 A Bell 47 is the first helicopter to fly personnel to an offshore oil well, a Kerr-McGee platform 8-10 mi. from the Louisiana coast

1949 Formation of Petroleum Helicopters (PHI)

1953 Formation of the Bristow Group

1964 The S-61N begins offshore operations

1965 Bristow flies its first North Sea offshore support flight

1981 The Boeing BV234 Commercial Chinook starts offshore missions

1982 The Aerospatiale AS332L Super Puma enters service with Bristow

The Bell 214ST begins offshore services

1986 Formation of Cougar Helicopters in Newfoundland, Canada

A British International Helicopters Boeing 234 Chinook crashes, killing all 45 onboard. It remains the worst offshore helicopter accident.

1987 Formation of Canadian Holding Co., later CHC

2001 Formation of Bond Offshore Helicopters

2002 The Eurocopter EC155 commences off-shore operations

2004 The first Sikorsky S-92 enters offshore

operations with PHI

2005The EC225 begins service with Bristow

2012 Authorities ground the EC225 offshore fleet from operations over hazardous environ-ments following two ditchings

2014 Certification of new medium helicopters

designed for offshore activity: the EC175 and AW189