Cobham Avionics expects to finally certify its new Stability Augmentation System (SAS) on the Bell 206 and 407 in the third quarter of 2010 and is confident the new low-cost autopilot product will eventually become available for several light helicopter models.

Cobham Avionics, formerly known as Chelton Flight Systems, announced at Heli-Expo 2010 in Houston this week a partnership with Bell Helicopter sister company Edwards & Associates to secure a FAA supplemental type certificate (STC) of Cobham's HeliSAS autopilot. Cobham's product line manager for helicopter autopilot systems, Jim Shirey, says certification is expected in mid-summer 2010 and Edwards will subsequently begin supplying HeliSAS autopilot kits for installations on Bell 206s and 407s.

Shirey says there is strong interest in HeliSAS among Bell 206 and 407 operators and although the product will initially only be available as a retrofit some 407 customers are planning to install the autopilot kit immediately after their new aircraft are delivered.

Shirey adds that HeliSAS is also now expected to be certified on the Eurocopter AS350 by the end of this year as part of a partnership with Metro Aviation. Cobham concluded a partnership agreement with Metro Aviation at Heli-Expo which will involve the Louisiana-based completion centre offering HeliSAS installation services on AS350s.

Cobham and Chelton have been working on developing SAS for several years but have encountered delays in bringing the new technology to market. Chelton originally expected to initially certify SAS on the Robinson R44 in the second quarter of 2007 with certification on the Bell 206/407 and Eurocopter AS350 scheduled to quickly follow. Cobham was able secure an STC covering HeliSAS on the R44 in November 2009, some five years after it started working with Robinson on the project, but has had to abandon efforts to offer the two-axis autopilot system on production R44s.

Robinson chief executive Frank Robinson told reporters at Heli-Expo the manufacturer has no plans to offer HeliSAS on the R44 or new R66 anytime in the near future because the technology is not yet mature enough. But Shirey says the main challenge is Robinson "has chosen to be self-insured" and as a result Cobham lawyers are not comfortable with the potential liability of offering HeliSAS on any Robinson helicopter.

But Shirey is confident HeliSAS will quickly become a popular retrofit on other light helicopter models and eventually will also be available as a manufacturer-offered option on new helicopters. "There are thousands of part 27 helicopters out there that we feel would benefit from this system," he says.

Historically light helicopters have not been equipped with autopilot systems because they are too expensive and heavy. But Shirey says HeliSAS is significantly cheaper and lighter than standard autopilots.

"We're bringing out an autopilot that is specifically addressing these two things," he says referring to cost and weight. Shirey adds HeliSAS can also interface with analog gyros in addition to digital interfaces. Cobham expects HeliSAS will cost roughly $125,000, including installation, on most models.

Shirey says Cobham is particularly targeting the EMS market, which has had a problematic safety record in recent years with an alarmingly high number of helicopters crashing after flying into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). HeliSAS "will save your life in IMC," Shirey says. "It will make a difference in the industry."

In fact Cobham says EMS operator, Mississippi-based Winona, is expected to be the launch customer of HeliSAS for the AS350. The Santa Barbara, California County Sheriff's Department is also in line to be an early HeliSAS operator, having announced at Heli-Expo it is acquiring the system for its Bell UH-1H. Shirey says certification for the Huey will not be required as it an ex-military helicopter.

Source: Flight International