Herd Management

Light helicopters are increasingly used by government agencies and park rangers to manage and protect indigenous and migratory animal populations. The US Bureau of Land Management use helicopters to manage the estimated 96,000 wild horses and burros that roam federally managed land in 10 western states. Commercial ranchers use light helicopters for mustering their herds. In fact, ranching is the third largest market for the light helicopter industry, and heli-mustering is an important application for ranchers.

“Mustering”, or cattle drives as they are known in the US, may be required as many as 3-4 times per year. The benefit of using helicopters is to reduce animal stress and round-up times from say, 3 hours on horse to 30-45 minutes with helicopters.  This results in 3-4% greater animal weight (termed “cattle-shrink”) following a cattle drive.  The benefit is equivalent to selling an extra 4 head per 100. The gains add up quickly as average drives can involve thousands of animals, each weighing on the order of 1,200 lb, and selling for $1.50 /lb (2013 prices).

Two issues limit the use of light helicopters to only the largest ranches and game parks; safety and cost.

Safety is problematic due to the dangerous combination of low-altitude flight and open rotors.  Auxiliary flight training is typically required of a mustering pilot in addition to standard helicopter training, due to the hazards of flying close to the ground. In Australia – one of the biggest markets, pilots need 150 hours of low altitude flight training in addition to the 110 hours for a standard license. Even with the additional training, an average 15 heli-mustering pilots die a year in Australia.

Cost is the other issue. A light helicopter can cost US$280,000 to purchase, and US$140 per hour to operate, excluding the salary of the pilot. It also requires access to aviation fuel and maintenance facilitates – all of which can be problematic in the field. There is a reason they are so expensive. A helicopter can fly several people to altitudes of many thousand feet and must pass through public airspace – over personnel and property, to get from an airport to its workplace. Most of this capability is of no value to the rancher who simply wants to muster safely and efficiently.

If the helicopter could be replaced with a vehicle more specifically designed for safe, low-altitude operations at a fraction of the cost, the rancher or park ranger would benefit – as would those of us who benefit from their work. The Aero-X is designed to fulfill that role. It runs on automotive gasoline and can be trailered rather than flown to where aerial assets are required. It provides aerial capability outside the general aviation infrastructure. It can also be acquired and operated at a fraction of the cost and training of a light helicopter.