The Rotorcraft Industry: Current Landscape, Key Players, and Future Outlook

The rotorcraft industry, particularly helicopters, is in the midst of seismic development. From the days of Da Vinci’s first sketches to now, rotorcraft vehicles are utterly unrecognisable – the changes are nowhere near complete. Today, helicopters and related craft are indispensable in various commercial and military applications, with the sector in an exciting phase. 

We’ve put together this blog to delve into the current landscape of the rotorcraft industry, highlight key players, and explore future trends to draw a better image of the market.

 

Global Helicopter Market Statistics

The global helicopter market has seen substantial growth over the years. In 2019, the market size was valued at over $48 billion USD, building to $56.87 billion in 2022, and projected to grow to $76.16 billion by 2030. Additionally, the Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul (MRO) segment of the helicopter market amounted to just over 9 billion USD in 2018. These figures underscore the economic significance of the helicopter industry worldwide, along with the fact that it shows no signs of slowing down.

US Dominance & Commercial vs. Military Market

The primary pillars of rotorcraft are: 

  • Military: Helicopters and rotorcraft designated for conflicts and defence purposes. 
  • Commercial: Civil crafts are used for private flights, tours, and transport, however, they also encompass helicopters used for emergency medical services, policing, enterprise purposes, and more. 

The U.S. currently leads the rotorcraft market by a landslide, with its market share accounting for $32.2 billion in 2022. Their fleet of military rotorcraft is 5,737 strong, while they also dominate in terms of commercial craft, with over 9,000 vehicles listed in 2019, over four times more than Canada in second place. 

 

Growth on The Rise

Both the commercial and military helicopter markets are projected to grow over the next few years, despite global sales dropping somewhat after the last few years. It’s also important to note that this increase in the market has the potential to reveal some significant cracks in the talent pool. It’s expected that military, tourism, and EMS helicopters will need an extra 61,000 pilots by 2038, with the rate of qualification not currently on track to meet the demand. 

Growth in Leasing Opportunities

The leasing market for helicopters is another aspect of the industry that’s quickly expanding, with more companies offering leasing options for advanced helicopters. This trend enables fleet expansion and provides operators access to the latest technology without the significant upfront costs associated with purchasing or manufacturing brand new helicopters. This can also be useful for emergency operations and similar applications. 

Leading Helicopter Manufacturers & Market Shares

Helicopters aren’t easy or cheap to build, which means only a few manufacturers have significant stakes in the industry. 

The leading manufacturers in the rotorcraft market are:

These brands are responsible for most of the commercial and army rotorcraft vehicles.

Airbus Helicopters, despite a decline in production from 451 rotorcraft in 2013 to 300 in 2019, has maintained relatively stable revenue levels, slightly decreasing from 6.3 billion euros in 2013 to 6.2 billion euros in 2020. This stability indicates the resilience of major manufacturers in the face of production fluctuations. The aviation titans still have control of around 52% of the commercial and parapublic market, showing their commitment to dominance. 

 

Rotorcraft Market Drivers and Challenges

To have a proper view of the industry, it’s important to understand the key elements driving the market and the challenges facing people across the space. 

Key Demand Drivers

The demand for helicopters is driven by various factors, including:

  • Increasing usage in Search and Rescue helicopters (SAR) and rotorcraft for the Emergency Medical Services (EMS)
  • The need for rotorcraft in law enforcement and public safety operations
  • Applications in the oil and gas sector
  • Increased demand for lightweight helicopters
  • Growth in oil and gas exploration activities

These diverse applications highlight the versatility and indispensability of helicopters in various critical sectors.

 

Challenges Facing the Industry

Despite the robust demand, the helicopter industry faces several challenges:

  • High maintenance costs
  • Operational erosion
  • Increasing safety concerns
  • The lasting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

Addressing these challenges with technological innovation is crucial to sustaining the industry’s growth.

 

Technological Advances and Leasing Trends

While challenges obstruct growth drivers in rotorcraft, plenty of innovative minds are working behind the scenes to ensure that the market can continue to develop positively. 

Some core innovations in recent rotorcraft history included:

  • Reduced noise levels and enhanced speeds
  • Improved travel session efficacy
  • Hybrid-electric propulsion systems

These advancements focus on operational efficiency, customer experience, and environmental sustainability, allowing for increased efficacy across various rotorcraft applications. For many, the primary development driving the rotorcraft industry is the integration of sustainable air fuel (SAF). 

Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) and Helicopters: A Promising Partnership

SAF is one of the leading developments across the aviation industry, with alternatives to greenhouse gases being developed and considered to significantly reduce the environmental impact of flight. Adopting SAF in helicopters could bring positive developments such as.

  • Emission Reduction: Helicopters can significantly reduce their carbon footprint by adopting SAF, crucial for urban air mobility (UAM) concepts utilizing helicopters for passenger or cargo transport in cities.
  • Public Perception and Regulatory Compliance: With increasing focus on environmental responsibility, using SAF can enhance the public image of helicopter operations and align with stricter emissions regulations.
  • Operational Benefits: While data is still emerging, some studies suggest SAF might improve engine performance and reduce helicopter maintenance costs in the long run.

Challenges and Adoption: The higher cost and limited production capacity of SAF might serve as a roadblock to the development’s widespread adoption. However, helicopter’s smaller fuel requirements compared to airplanes make them ideal candidates for the early adoption and beta testing of SAF as production scales up.

While challenges exist, increasing awareness, collaboration within the industry, and government support can accelerate SAF adoption, paving the way for a more sustainable future for rotorcraft.

 

Helicopter Industry Trends by Sector

With all of the technological advancements being made in the broader industry, it’s important to track where the individual sectors of the rotorcraft industry might be headed.

Law Enforcement

Increased Use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs):  While helicopters offer unparalleled maneuverability and payload capacity,  cost-effective drones are set to take over some surveillance tasks in the law enforcement sector. Helicopters will likely be used more for rapid deployment, hostage rescue, and heavy-lifting scenarios in the future.

Focus on Advanced Avionics and Sensors:  The cameras and observational systems of law enforcement helicopters are likely to integrate thermal imaging, LIDAR, and high-resolution cameras, enhancing situational awareness and nighttime operations.

Community Noise Concerns:  Pressure to reduce noise pollution will influence the adoption of quieter rotorcraft designs and optimized flight paths.

Search and Rescue (SAR) & Emergency Medical Services (EMS)

Enhanced Medical Capabilities:  Helicopters in both these sectors will likely see improved onboard medical equipment and training for paramedics to provide critical care during transport.

Advanced Search Technology:  SAR and EMS helicopters are starting to integrate infrared search and rescue (IRSAR) systems, improved communication with ground teams, and real-time data analysis will expedite search efforts.

Focus on All-Weather Operations: Advanced de-icing technologies and improved low-visibility landing systems will make helicopters more reliable in challenging weather conditions. These developments will allow for year-round rescue operations to take place. 

 

Focus on Speed and Efficiency: The general improvements in rotorcraft designs with longer ranges and faster cruise speeds will expedite patient transport, especially helpful in time-critical situations.

Telemedicine Integration: While this is already in place, there will be enhancements in real-time communication with on-ground medical professionals, helping to improve pre-hospital care and optimize patient outcomes.

Oil and Gas

Rise of Remote Offshore Operations:  Helicopters will remain vital for crew transport, equipment logistics, and maintenance in remote offshore locations as the search for oil spreads further and wider.

Emphasis on Safety and Efficiency:  As autopilot systems and real-time condition monitoring improve, so will safety and flight route optimization, allowing for increased for fuel efficiency.

Exploration of Alternative Energy Sources:  As the industry transitions towards renewable energy, such as SAF sources, helicopters might be used for wind farm maintenance and inspections.

Military

Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs):  These disparate but connected forms of UAVs are expected to complement attack helicopters in some missions, particularly high-risk environments – potentially reducing the need for as many soldiers.

Focus on Multi-Role Capabilities: Military helicopters will continue to be designated and designed for more diverse roles, including basic troop transport, close air support, and armed reconnaissance.

Advancements in Avionics and Weaponry: Weapon systems will continue to become increasingly advanced and integrated into military rotorcraft. Other advances will include more secure communication networks and autonomous flight capabilities, all enhancing operational effectiveness.

With all these developments on the horizon, rotorcraft is set to reach new heights in the coming years. While COVID-19 slowed the market down for a while, innovation is set to drive significant growth and improvement.

 

Conclusion

The rotorcraft industry is a critical component of modern transportation and logistics, and the advancements in its technology only spell it becoming more essential as time goes. Key manufacturers like Airbus Helicopters and Leonardo Helicopters are leading the market in terms of commerce and innovation, but there are countless valuable minds and opinions across the industry. 

If you’re interested in engaging with the rotorcraft industry in a meaningful way, attend Helitech Expo this year! This rotorcraft trade show and industry conference brings together hundreds of exhibitors, an incredible lineup of speakers, and thousands of relevant professionals. It’s a rare opportunity to engage with the sector, source technology, and learn from the best in the business, so it’s certainly not an event to miss!

Register for your free tickets here