In just over four years the UK could have three different firms running its search and rescue (SAR) operations using smaller helicopters than at present and calling on assets as diverse as unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) and high-altitude pseudo-satellites.
At present, SAR helicopter services are run by Bristow Helicopters using 11-strong fleets of SAR-roled Sikorsky S-92s and Leonardo Helicopters AW189s stationed at 10 bases around the UK.
Bristow won the 10-year, £1.6 billion ($2 billion) contract in 2013, taking over from Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Navy (RN) crews, with the deal due to expire in a phased manner from 2024 to 2026.
Separately, 2Excel Aviation provides a pair of Beechcraft King Air twin-turboprops for fisheries protection and anti-pollution monitoring activities under a contract which ends in 2024.
But officials from the UK’s Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA) have now begun industry engagement sessions as they work towards the procurement of the second-generation – or 2G – SAR service.
While the tender for the present SAR-H contract included a technical specification document for the helicopters and base structure that ran to 76 pages, the MCA stresses that it is “agnostic” as to how the future service will be delivered.
Phil Hanson, aviation technical assurance manager at the MCA, says the agency is “totally non-prescriptive about delivery and platforms”.
Under the SAR-H tender process, the MCA was keen to replicate the military operation replaced by the privatised service; for example, new facilities were located close to legacy RAF or RN bases. This in some ways “constrained” what could be delivered, says Hanson.
“But we are now completely agnostic – providing there’s the evidence [a solution] can meet our needs.”
Although helicopters will remain the primary platforms for rescue missions, the MCA is encouraging bidders to offer solutions that use current and emerging technologies such as UAVs or even high-altitude pseudo-satellites for surveillance.
Successful employment of UAV technology will, however, depend on negotiations with the UK Civil Aviation Authority and the outcome of trials using Elbit Systems Hermes 900 and Skylark platforms operating from West Wales airport. The testing was due to take place in the spring, but the coronavirus outbreak has postponed this until August.
Data from the evaluation will be available to all bidders to help inform their strategies, says Hanson.
While the S-92s and AW189s acquired under the current contract were all new-build examples, the MCA is also not ruling out the use of second-hand helicopters under SAR-2G.
“We have no issue with second-hand aircraft, but as aircraft get long in the tooth maintenance time increases.
“Any evidence to support their use would have to have to show that [the bidder] could maintain the service despite the higher maintenance burden,” says Hanson.
On 12 May, the MCA held a virtual industry engagement day, walking bidders through likely procurement timelines and key objectives.
The helicopter rescue elements were provisionally presented as two separate lots, 1 and 2, respectively requiring “fast, short-range rescue and response to short notice to respond” and “high-endurance long-range rescue and response at longer notice to respond”, according to a slide shown during the presentation.
Under the SAR-H tender, the shorter-range machines were required to have a radius of action of 170nm (314km) and be capable of carrying up to four casualties, while the figures for the long-range helicopters were 200nm and up to eight casualties.
However, the MCA says analysis of its data shows that the vast majority of incidents – around 94% - occur within 150nm of the base from which the asset was tasked; the average number of people rescued is between one and two.
That strongly suggests that bidders might be able to offer a helicopter smaller than the 8.6t AW189 to meet the future ”short-range” requirements.
A further 2% of incidents occur between 150-200nm, with 4% beyond 200nm, or involve the rescue of more than two people.
“For these incidents, assets with greater endurance and an increased rescue capacity would be suitable and could therefore be delivered from a separate lot,” says the MCA.
“Using data to delineate the two lots will result in a far more tailored solution with future contracts configured to meet the demands placed in front of them.”
Data analysis is core to the MCA’s approach to SAR-2G. Potential bidders were repeatedly told during the presentation that data from the current contract should be used shape their offers.
“The programme will build on the data modelled from the current SAR programme to inform a market-led, tailored solution ensuring the most appropriate assets at the most suitable locations nationwide to meet the MCA’s commitments,” says a presentation slide.
While the location of incidents drives the base structure, the MCA notes that at present, having a second aircraft at each site only reduces response distance by 3nm.
“The purpose of presenting information in this manner is to encourage potentially different or innovative base/asset configurations that will still enable that dispatch reliability [of 98%] – whether that is co-location of assets at a few bases or whether that’s a single base with maintenance and training aircraft.
“We believe there is definitely another way to do it, but whether that’s correct is not for the modelling to confirm or deny,” John Foster, portfolio analyst, told the briefing.
While the current deal with 2Excel sits slightly outside the SAR-H contract, the MCA hopes to achieve a closer alignment between the two under its next-generation service.
Under the provisional tender structure, Lot 3 requires “fixed-wing and potentially UAV, rapid search only, surveillance and pollution response”.
Although this largely corresponds with 2Excel’s contract, Hanson says the decision to tender it alongside the rescue elements is designed to “ensure that as we move forward into SAR-2G all these work in unison and that the contracts are of a similar duration.”
He estimates that 30-40% of 2Excel’s current taskings are in support of search and rescue missions: “It is already in the psychology of the way we operate the aerial surveillance contract.”
In addition to the primary mission of serving HM Coastguard, spare SAR aviation capacity will increasingly be made available to the other emergency services or government bodies, such as Border Force.
While the MCA presentation advertises that “interested parties will be invited to bid for all or any of these lots”, the agency stresses that the precise lot structure has yet to be finalised.
Although the MCA’s contracting process could see three separate companies selected, the agency denies this will cause needless complexity.
“The MCA has for many years worked with multiple suppliers in the delivery of its search and rescue aviation services,” it says, noting that each company “brings with it a unique expertise”.
The procurement process is due to kick-off in the first quarter of 2021, with contract award 18 months later. A budget for the contract has yet to be finalised.