Two Canadian companies are getting international attention for their software that can monitor an aircraft’s technical data during flight and send alerts via satellite back to the ground if anything unusual is detected.
Toronto-based Star Navigation Systems Group Ltd. signed a $2.5-million contract this summer to sell its IFIS (in-flight safety monitoring system) software to India’s A.R. Airways, while Calgary-based AeroMechanical Services Ltd. signed a letter of intent to install its AFIRS (automated flight information reporting system) software on China Eastern Airlines flights.
Both software applications – IFIS and AFIRS – offer similar features that scan thousands of an aircraft’s different operating specifications and collect data. If anything goes wrong during a flight and the aircraft starts to vary outside pre-set specifications, the system can send immediate warnings to airline staff using methods such as pager or e-mail.
Airlines are already required by federal law to carry a flight data recorder, more commonly known as the “black box,” but this is sealed into a rear compartment of the plane. The flight crew, mechanics and other airline staff cannot get to the data without ripping out entire panels and breaking a seal on the device.
That sturdy construction is vital in the event of a crash because it helps preserve key evidence if anything goes mechanically wrong. It also records the captain’s and other cockpit crew’s voices to see if they said anything in the last few moments before an incident occurs.
“Our software will help an airline use the right data to become more proactive,” says Star Navigation’s president and chief technology officer Hilary Vieira. “With this software, our clients can customize certain parameters.
“If the aircraft starts to operate outside of those settings, then an alert can be sent to their people on the ground to take care of it right away.”
Once the data is collected during flight, it can be sent via satellite and accessed by Star’s clients via a secure company website.
This past July, Star Navigation officials announced they had signed a multimillion-dollar contract in India.
Star Navigation’s chairman and CEO, Viraf Kapadia, said in a news release that smaller airlines and business travel represented a huge market for his company.
“With business jet deliveries having increased since 1997 and with an estimated 12,800 business jets worldwide, this particular niche opportunity for Star is simply tremendous,” said Kapadia.
The next day, Star Navigation issued another news release saying SpiceJet Airlines, an earlier client in India that had given the company a $9-million contract, wanted the firm to speed up the software installation. Rather than doing it over 42 months as originally agreed, SpiceJet wanted the job done in 24 months.
As well, Vieira returned from London, England, last month to announce details of a partnership with British aviation maintenance and inventory management firm Russell Adams, which has 70 international clients that could potentially become Star customers, said Kapadia.
Kapadia, Vieira and other partners launched the firm in 1998. It is now listed on the TSX Venture Exchange and is aggressively pursuing other contracts around the world, says Vieira.
“There is nothing else like this technology in the world,” says Vieira, adding his company holds patents in different countries around the globe. “Our product is the absolutely leading edge.”
Star Navigation press releases repeatedly refer to the product as being “without peer.”
At the Calgary head offices of AeroMechanical Services Ltd. (AMS), however, CEO Bill Tempany disagrees. “I don’t know why they keep saying that. Our product is very similar to theirs,” he said in a telephone interview.
Tempany’s software also performs in-flight data recording and transmission, sending it via satellite to staff on the ground. It can even save the information to a database or Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, he explains. Data can also be saved on a memory card for retrieval later.
“This can give smaller airlines an edge because they can help manage downtime for their fleets better. It will let them know right away what’s happening.”
There were signs this past spring that a major Canadian airline was in talks with AMS to use its AFIRS software. Tim Morgan, executive vice-president of operations for WestJet Airlines, resigned from the AMS board after three years as a member. In his letter of resignation, Morgan said it was to avoid a possible conflict of interest while AMS pursues “business opportunities” with Calgary-based WestJet.
“I hope to be a valued resource to WestJet as we explore these opportunities with AMS. I wish to thank you for the opportunity to participate in (an) exciting new venture and I know that good things are in store for AMS,” Morgan wrote in his resignation letter.
Asked if an announcement about the potential WestJet deal was imminent, Tempany would only say discussions were going well. “WestJet has a great group of people and we’re both working hard towards something,” he said.
AMS has a large client list for the AFIRS software that includes Aloha Airlines, the Government of Alberta, British Columbia’s Hawkair and Canadian North.
David Greatrix, professor of aerospace engineering at Toronto’s Ryerson University, says he isn’t surprised both companies are finding an interested market for their respective software applications. He noted current black-box technology is about 70 years old.
“I don’t know if it will be replacing the black box anytime soon, but that’s an issue for Transport Canada. This does put more information in the hands of airlines, though, which is potentially a big bonus,” Greatrix says.
“The airline industry is highly competitive in Canada right now. I’ve heard manufacturers like Pratt Whitney Canada and Bombardier have been looking at installing similar products on their aircraft for a few years now, but this is the first time anyone has done anything that I’ve seen.”
Greatrix says one disadvantage to both software products is how they rely on satellites to get information to the ground. “Satellites can go out of touch for periods of time due to weather or other factors. This could mean they lose huge parts of their data,” he explains.
Lucie Vignola, a senior communications adviser with Transport Canada in Ottawa, would not comment on either company’s software applications as they related to the black box.
The federal agency does not provide comments on private companies, she said.
(David Hatton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)