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December 14, 2010

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North-Sea helicopter safety system goes live

Oil & Gas UK and NATS, the UK’s air-navigation service provider, have announced the world’s first operational use of wide-area multi-lateration technology for tracking offshore flights.

Helicopters in transit to and from oil and gas platforms in the North Sea are now visible to air-traffic controllers from take-off to landing, increasing the safety of helicopter traffic and efficiency of rescue operations.

Multi-lateration uses signal transmitters and receivers fitted to offshore oil and gas platforms to track helicopters at a much greater range than radars. Previously, helicopters would be lost to shore-based radars 80 miles from land, but the new system follows flights from runway to platform in real time.

This information allows air traffic controllers to keep safe separation between helicopters operating around the platforms and provides vital details on helicopters’ locations in the event of an emergency.

Commenting on the breakthrough, John Mayhew, NATS’ general manager, Aberdeen said: “This is a major step forward for safety, as we can offer a traffic service to aircraft in the North Sea and pinpoint helicopters in emergency situations.

“It also enables more direct routing of helicopters to and from offshore platforms, which delivers environmental and efficiency benefits.”

When a helicopter leaves the 80-mile shore-based radar zone, its transponder responds to an interrogation signal sent from a platform, which is then sent back and detected by receivers on each platform in a four-platform cluster. Only three signals need to be received in order to provide a position for the helicopter, but the fourth signal both increases accuracy and gives some redundancy should a signal not be received. The data is then sent to the control tower at Aberdeen Airport where it provides real-time information for the controllers.

The project, which began in 2004, was led by the offshore-industry Helicopter Task Group and was officially unveiled last year. The multi-lateration system went live on 11 December this year.

Helicopter safety issues have now been handed over to the Helicopter Safety Steering Group, a new workgroup which also includes representatives from the helicopter operators, oil and gas operators and contractors, offshore trade unions, the pilots’ union BALPA, the regulators HSE and CAA, and industry body Oil & Gas UK.

Robert Paterson, health, safety and employment issues director with Oil & Gas UK, welcomed the launch, saying: “This is a considerable step forward in helicopter safety and typifies the sterling work done by the Helicopter Task Group – to drive important safety-related projects to a successful conclusion.”

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