New technology boosts offshore safety

A NEW surveillance system to make it easier to track helicopters over the North Sea has been described as a “huge safety enhancement”.

Launched yesterday by Oil and Gas UK and air navigation service provider Nats, the system will help air traffic controllers pinpoint the specific location of any helicopter that runs into difficulty while transporting offshore workers to and from oil and gas platforms.

The development comes after two Super Puma helicopters ditched into the North Sea earlier this year.

All 18 people on board survived the first accident in February, but six weeks later another Super Puma crashed, killing all 16 crew and passengers.

The new system, which uses multiple position points to determine the exact location of a helicopter, will help reduce the risk of near-miss incidents with other aircraft and allow air traffic controllers to cover a significantly greater area.

As soon as a helicopter goes beyond the 80-mile zone covered by land-based radar, its signal will be picked up by 16 offshore platforms clustered around the North Sea, and the data sent to Aberdeen Airport. John Mayhew, general manager of Nats, said controllers will receive a report about a helicopter’s location every 20 miles, or 10 minutes, and this would improve response times should an emergency unfold.

“We will see the aircraft disappear off the radar. The response will be instant and live. We can go on 20 miles and have an exact place to search. It will be very precise,” Mr Mayhew said.

Bob Keiller, chairman of the Helicopter Task Project, a group set up to look at safety after the fatal crash in April, described the technology as a breakthrough in helicopter safety. He said: “Previously, helicopters were lost to land-based radar at about 80 miles from the coast, because radar coverage doesn’t extend that distance. The new system uses multi-lateration to allow flight paths to be tracked all the way to an installation in real time.

“It is designed to detect aircraft down to 500ft above sea level or better, depending on the helicopter position.”

Trevor West, manager of Aberdeen Air Traffic Control, said: “This equipment is a huge safety enhancement.

“There is nothing worse than losing an aircraft, especially when lives are lost.

“When I think about it (the April 1 accident), it still tingles with me now. In that case, there was not a lot we could do. There was no warning – it just happened.”

The new system has cost about £3.5million, including an upgrade of the voice communication system used by air traffic controllers to speak directly to helicopter crews.

Trials are now under way. All 16 platforms are expected to be fitted with the equipment by next June.