Anglo-Italian safety equipment specialist Aero Sekur (hall 2b, stand F156] is moving on with its plans for a helicopter crash airbag and flotation system, hoping that the first example will fly as early as next year. However, other existing products are at the heart of the firm's expansion strategy, as new maintenance facilities are added in Italy, India and the USA.

"The building blocks are in place," says Mark Butler, chief executive of the company - which was established in 1993, through the merger of Irvin Aerospace and Pirelli's Sekur division. "The shock absorption airbag technology is well proven and the flotation system is well proven."

While the latter have been employed for helicopters flying over water since the mid-1990s, the former has been developed for the landing of the ExoMars Rover in 2018, an exploration project aiming for the red planet and created by the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA.

Aero Sekurheli crash airbag - Aero Sekurheli 
 © Aero Sekuk
Floating concept: model of Aero Sekur's helicopter crash-landing protection system

The design challenge for the shock attenuation system is not just to cushion the touchdown to "sensible" G-forces but, crucially, to ensure that the air or spacecraft remains in an upright position, explains Butler. He said previous shock absorption systems have led to landings where the craft bounced around uncontrollably after hitting the surface.

Sensors in the airframe and airbag determine the craft's movement and orientation, as well as surface characteristics - for example, whether the vehicle is coming down on water or a sloped, hard surface. The information is used to control the valves and inflate the different airbag compartments in an appropriate sequence, to keep the craft in an upright position.

The controlled touchdown is to ensure that other safety features on the airframe work as intended, such as the seats - which are designed to absorb vertical rather than lateral accelerations.

"The majority of crashes occur in conditions that are not high-speed, but fatalities are high," says the company's chief engineer, Giacomo Giovangrossi. A shock attenuation system would therefore have "a major impact on saving lives," he adds.

Aero Sekur flotation devices 
 © Aero Sekur
 Under wraps: new capabilities for the flotation device will be added on a "fairly rapid basis"

Combining the space technology-based crash airbag with a helicopter flotation system is a new approach, according to Butler. Based on computer modelling, the system works "absolutely fine at a conceptual level", he says.

There would be a slight weight penalty over the conventional flotation system due to an additional sensor and processing equipment, and a more puncture-resistant airbag for impacts on hard surfaces.

While it will need to be specifically tailored to individual helicopter models, there would be no limits in terms of aircraft weight and dimensions. The system can be installed on any rotorcraft, be it a two-seat piston engine-powered or heavy transport helicopter, says Butler.

Aero Sekurslide repair
 © Aero Sekur
Overhaul repairs to escape slides take place at Aero Sekur's facility in Aprilla, south Rome

Finding a first customer will be the next step. The company reports it has had "quite a bit of interest" from helicopter original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), and that it is currently in commercial discussions. "We are hoping to get a system flying and under test sometime in 2012," says Butler. He expects that the testing and certification period could take approximately two years until entry-into-service, rather than five years for an all-new system.

Military missions, such as a helicopter operating from a ship offshore to a target area overland, would be an obvious application for the system. However, Butler also sees potential for wide use in the civilian field.

Another central growth area for Aero Sekur is its maintenance business. The company is currently moving its repair and overhaul operations from its production plant in Aprilia, south of Rome, to a nearby 20,000ft² (1,800m²) facility that has been solely dedicated to providing maintenance, repair and operations support (MRO).

The 15 employees at the new location, which is situated in an existing building, will service civil and military safety equipment such as life-jackets, escape slides, rafts and flotation devices, both from within its own product range and from other suppliers. New capabilities are to be added on a "fairly rapid basis", although the main work volume will be in servicing life vests and escape slides, according to Butler.

The site is to open for business in the third quarter of 2011, but the company is already making initial plans to move to a new, purpose-built 50,000ft² facility. If all goes to plan, this should become available in about three years, added the chief executive.

"The MRO business will double this year," says Butler. "I expect it to double again next year in terms of contracts that we have in the pipeline."

The expansion plans are not limited to Aprilia and include new sites in other world regions. Preparations are underway to open a company-owned repair and overhaul shop in Bangalore, India, by the end of 2011. However, this will only be an initial step, as Butler selected a site for a permanent MRO facility at Cochin airport last month.

Aero Sekur flotation bags - Aero Sekur
 © Aero Sekur
Back up: packing flotation bags is part of maintenance, repairs and operations support

For the North American market, Aero Sekur has recently opened a marketing and engineering office in New Jersey. Butler explains that the team was stationed there to concentrate mainly on rotorcraft, as about 40% of the global helicopter market is situated in the US.

The initial stage is to establish the business and its customer base over the next 18 months to two years, and then to add manufacturing, repair and overhaul support to the operations. The manufacturing is expected to launch with flotation devices.

The expansion will coincide with the facility moving into the US Gulf, as many helicopter operators are involved in the off-shore oil industry. Florida is also ranking high on the list of potential locations for the new site, but a final decision has not been made, he says.

The company has partnership facilities in Abu Dhabi, Brazil, Japan, South Africa and on the US West coast, and is currently negotiating a potential corporation in Malaysia. However, this network is subject to change, depending where aircraft are being sold to and what maintenance agreements are in place with the OEMs, explains Butler. "If, for instance, AgustaWestland sold a huge number of AW139s to a particular country we will have to look how we can support that."

Source: Flight Daily News