How connectivity is taking rescue helicopters into the cloud

As more and more critical health and technical information is accessed via the internet, HeliOtago decided it needed a radical broadband transformation.

If you’re a pilot working for the Otago Rescue Helicopter, you’re kept very busy. Each year the helicopter flies about 800 air ambulance missions (that averages more than two every day), covering an area that makes up 28 percent of New Zealand’s land mass and contains 6 percent of our population. The average mission setting off from the helicopter’s base at Taieri airfield, on the outskirts of Mosgiel, involves up to two hours in the air, flying over rugged but beautiful country, in what can be freezing conditions in winter.

But not so long ago, Graeme Gale faced a big problem. Gale is the chief pilot of the Otago Rescue Helicopter and managing director of Helicopters Otago, the commercial aviation business which operates the charitable trust-funded rescue helicopter. Increasingly, Gale found, the information his team needed to do their jobs was most easily found in the cloud or in digital form – for example electronic patient reports (ePRFs) of the people they were going to pick up, pilot flight and duty logs, and the aircraft daily log, including electronic customer details. Even the maintenance manuals required by the aviation engineers - all online.

Trouble was, HeliOtago had an ADSL connection, and whether it was pilots uploading flight logs, paramedics downloading patient info or engineers wanting wiring diagrams, tasks came to a grinding halt. The revolving hourglass icon was an all-too-common sight on the team’s computer screens.

But the clincher for Gale to do something about his internet speeds was when he decided to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars upgrading the rescue helicopter to introduce the sophisticated equipment needed to fly missions when visibility was minimal. The “Instrument Flight Rules (IFR)” cockpit means pilots don’t need to be able to see outside the aircraft to figure out where they are going. Instead the instruments “see” the topography, and global navigation systems combine with air traffic route information, and details about weather conditions.

This innovation becomes crucial in “icing” conditions, when cloud cover is low. Helicopters can’t fly at higher altitudes in these conditions because of a risk of blades icing up. Gale reckoned the electronic cockpit would give the organisation “enhanced safety with extra capability”.

But the electronic cockpit upgrade meant exchanging large files between designers and engineers in Auckland and the installation team at Taieri. “They’d start downloading, go get a coffee, and come back and the download would still be grinding away,” Gale says. The company’s ADSL pipe just couldn’t cope and everyone felt more than a little frustrated. Then Gale found out Ultra-Fast Broadband was running just a few hundred metres away from the base and he reached out to Chorus. A team installed fibre broadband in mid-May.

“When we first got it, everyone was saying it was the best thing to come to the hangar – ever. Now, the guys still think it’s great, but it has become the new normal for us. We went from a Model T to a supersonic jet. It has made that much of a difference.”

Electronic patient referral forms, flight logs, and those phone book sized maintenance manuals, can be accessed in split seconds rather than agonising and frustrating minutes, Gale says. Which means the pilots and engineers can get on with doing what they do best – rescuing people.

This story originally appeared on The Download.