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Canadian Firm Gives Aircraft Safety a Lift

Canadian Firm Gives Aircraft Safety a Lift
(Updated 'black box' helped Indian Air Force duo set world record)

Bouncing all the way around the planet at about 20 kilometres an hour in a microlight aircraft may not be your idea of fun, but it was the dream of two daredevil pilots from India.

Wing Commanders Rahul Monga and Anil Kumar recently logged 40,497 kilometres in 79 days of flying to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Indian Air Force.

Despite several hair-raising experiences, like a sudden gust of wind that turned a landing at a Chinese airport into an unplanned sudden takeoff, the crew shaved quite a few days off the previous record and landed safely near New Delhi on Aug. 19.

Their "luggage" include some new made-in-Canada technology that may fundamentally change the way airlines operate. It may also improve the passenger experience, even for those of us who would never cross the Bering Strait in a 500-kg craft powered by an engine that's smaller than some people's lawnmowers.
The device is called the automated flight information reporting system (AFIRS), made by Calgary-based Aeromechanical Services Ltd. (AMS).

Think of a flight data recorder - that "black box" that gets recovered and analysed when an aircraft crashes. Now, paint it blue, hook it up to even more systems on the airplane and give it the ability to communicate in real time by an Iridium satellite phone.

Aeromechanical CEO Bill Tempany says his product offers huge advantages to aircraft operators. "Everything on an aircraft is based on the OOOI times, the out, off, on, in times," he says.

These numbers drive aircraft maintenance schedules, how the crew is paid, even how much the company must pay to lease its seats. Right now, most airlines base those numbers on the pilot's logbook, which Tempany says is typically off by two to three minutes and always on the high side.

"It's not that pilots are fraudulent or anything like that," he says. "They're busy flying the aircraft and don't look at their watches as soon as the wheels come up or they touch down."

So they fill the sheets in later, while sitting in the lounge. Even a small discrepancy, multiplied over many flights, can cost the aircraft operator big bucks.

The original customer that ordered this system was Tyrolean Airlines, but the company now serves a range of regional and charter carriers, including Aloha, Skyservices and Canadian North.

Most people just assume that commercial aircraft pilots are in continuous voice contact with someone on the ground, but Tempany says that's just not true on many routes.

"The aircraft knows where it is at all times," he says, "but over the polar region, or the Pacific, or parts of the Caribbean, pilots are unable to communicate with anyone on the ground."

They can't alert the destination airport if a passenger needs medical attention, nor can they get needed information on a timely basis.

Tempany says Canadian North is hooking up laptops to the AFIRS system to beam weather reports and runway conditions to pilots flying in the Far North.

The system also has the potential to revolutionize the way aircraft are maintained. After all, nobody likes to have a flight delayed or cancelled while the mechanics muddle around trying to fix a burned-out light bulb or something.

"Our system looks for discrepancies," Tempany says. "So for example, if a part is about to fail we can alert the ground crew to be ready to fix it. We can also receive 'snag' reports from the cockpit, so if it's something that the pilot noticed it can be flagged."

This can result in fewer delays and happier customers, as well as better use of those expensive flying machines.

One possibly contentious area is the monitoring of how a pilot's flying. Just as truck drivers bristle at being tracked on the road, surely pilots don't like being told that they could have flown more efficiently and saved expensive aviation fuel?

Not so, says Tempany. He notes that airlines are now structured so that pilots are among the owners, either directly or through their pension fund and "that's changed the attitude a lot. People need to be more cognizant of what they do and how they do it if they're going to survive in this business. Our system helps them do a better job."

He also notes that the data can be anonymized so that individual pilots aren't fingered for using an excessive bank angle or putting too much wear and tear on the brake system.

The system is sold like a cellphone, he adds. "We give it away and charge them on a flight-hour basis."

"The payback period is coming in at seven months, with a 10-to-11 return on investment over a five-year contract.?

Asked why we don't see the technology on major airlines like United or American, he laughs. "They don't have any money."

Major carriers have systems and procedures that are part of union contracts and would take a while to change, Tempany adds.

But he cheerily reports that his company has received calls from three of the six major airlines, "who see what we're doing for other companies."

Of course, it would be even smarter to put the device right into an aircraft when it's built. U.K.-based Meggitt PLC was so impressed with the product that they agreed to market the product directly to aircraft manufacturers.

Richard Hayden, vice-president of Meggitt's sensing system division, says that AFIRS "adds immense value to our vibration and on-engine monitoring and health and usage monitoring systems.?

He sees potential in both the civilian and military markets.

As a giant U.K. defence contractor, Meggitt could have partnered with anyone in the world. Why did they choose AMS? Because "they had correctly conceived of the end-to-end delivery of the information," says Hayden. "What AMS did extremely well, that no one else has done in our estimation, is to recognize that once this data got to the ground it needed to be archived, verified and delivered via the Internet."

The flight-tracking system is AMS's major product, but the company also ferrets out other strange but profitable opportunities in the aviation industry.

AMS created a special box to hold the pilot's aircraft operating manuals that fits in the floor of the Dash-8 and CRJ aircraft and allows the manuals to be lifted out.

The company is also working on an "electronic flight bag" system that would allow pilots to avoid hernias from dragging around those legally-required manuals. Instead, they're using a cockpit computer that's kept up-to-date through the AFIRS system.

But there's more. "We're in the process of developing a cabin sterilization system to stop the spread of bird flu, when it comes," Tempany adds, seeing opportunity in what many would consider catastrophe.

Speaking of catastrophe, Tempany says he was kind of worried about those Indian pilots. "Sometimes I questioned their sanity. After all, they might have lasted only a few minutes if they ditched into icy water somewhere."

But he's happy knowing that, if they did have a crisis, his company's technology would allow them, and generations of pilots to come, to phone for help.***

By: Tom Keenan - Business Edge
(Tom Keenan is a professor at the University of Calgary and an expert on technology and its social implications. He can be reached at

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