Raising the level of performance in air traffic management
In this installment, I interview Alex Sauriol, Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer at Searidge Technologies. Searidge is a leading technology innovator providing remote tower and surface optimization services and solutions to airports and air navigation service providers (ANSPs) worldwide.
Q: What drove you and Moodie to do what you started with Searidge, and what was your vision at the time?
When we started the company – around 2004 – Moodie and I were neighbors and we were both working in technology. I was doing software development, and Moodie was in consulting services in the IT space. We were just coming off the tech boom, and we both wanted to start a company that we could build into a successful business. For me, there were a few things that were driving this. One, I’ve always been entrepreneurial. It’s always been about seeing a problem and fixing it. But, I think in this case I do remember us saying that if we make the jump from a stable income to a very unstable income – even a negative income in some cases – is it worth doing? Obviously, there’s the potential payoff if the company is successful, but also is the problem interesting? Is it worth solving? Because if the possibility exists that you’re going to fail, at least fail doing something that’s really interesting and has the potential to have a huge impact on an industry.
Around that time, we had about three or four different ideas, and they weren’t all related to aviation. We were heavily into peer-to-peer networking at that point. There were some different technologies that I was personally interested in, and I did see some interesting work being done around computer vision, what was then sort of a precursor to artificial intelligence (AI).
Because of the contacts we had with NAV CANADA and some of the work we were doing, aviation seemed to me like a field of opportunity…. In air traffic control specifically, there wasn’t a system that I could see that couldn’t be upgraded, in some cases significantly, with newer technology or newer methods or newer practices of development. I just thought there was a massive opportunity there – globally. The global nature of the opportunity really intrigued Moodie, as he personally was interested in creating an international company that had the potential for widespread impact.
With just the right amount of innocence and naivety that we both had, we didn’t know that you couldn’t do that or you needed wealth to do that…. We just set about bringing in some really smart and interesting former air traffic controllers from NAV CANADA and we created an advisory board, and just did pure R&D brainstorming from their point of view as in, “what are some of the challenges that you feel technology can help with?” A few opportunities were identified in that early meeting. Eventually, we narrowed in on one particular one, which was around the airport surface, and that’s what we did, and that’s what we’ve spent the next 12 plus years now doing.
Q: It sounds from what you are saying that the real challenge was in getting people to look at a situation in a different way. It’s a culture change that is required, isn’t it?
Absolutely. A lot of people talk about safety being paramount and that new concepts take a long time to introduce because of safety. I don’t think that’s true at all. When you look at banking, the sort of risk management that people involved in banking technology have to deal with is very similar. In aviation, the technology advances that are happening in aircraft today are a lot more advanced than what’s happening on the ground in air traffic control. There definitely is a challenge in fielding new technology, but I believe it has much more to do with the challenges in running a 24/7/365 operation. Banks close for weekends, aircraft get pulled for maintenance, but ATC never really goes offline and that makes introducing new technology challenging. For example, if you’re going to put something new in front of a controller, you’ve got a fairly limited amount of time, from the time that you train them on a new method or technology, to the time that they have to start using it operationally. Training time has an expiration date on it, that says if they don’t use it operationally you’ve got to train them again. So, you end up in a situation where everybody’s got to be trained very, very quickly or where the change that you make to what they are doing is so incremental that it can cap with a very minor change to their procedure.
There are interesting challenges like that, and that’s not just from the controller perspective, but also from the maintenance folks and technologists, and in some cases the management. It’s a peculiar challenge, and a lot of people who look at air traffic control from the outside will say, “that’s old and there’s a way better way of doing that today.” Well, yes, but we still haven’t solved how do we get the whole world to jump at the same time. The challenge with ADS-B implementation…. We’re in year 20 of that now? It’s not because we don’t have smart people, and it’s not because we don’t know that there’s a better way of doing things. It’s just that we’ve all got to jump at the same time. You’ve got to get aircraft to equip. You’ve got to get people on the ground to receive. And, what’s the impact on procedures. So, there are always going to be challenges there.
Q: Aviation is an extremely complex system of systems, with a lot of elements to it, a lot of stakeholders, and it sounds like this risk averse culture has been your biggest obstacle. Have there been other obstacles?
Lots of industries are risk averse. Medical is risk averse, but there’s a really well-defined path to how to certify a medical device for use in a hospital. I think there’s an insularity that exists within certain areas of aviation where people become experts just because they’ve been around for a while…. a certain culture develops and it’s very hard for new ideas to get accepted. There can be a tendency toward hubris where “I know everything there is to know, and because I’ve been told I’m an expert, I’m not going to let any new ideas in.”
The other big thing is interoperability. Standards in air traffic control are not where I think they need to be. Take an example, when you talk about a complex system of systems, that’s the internet. Yet, somehow, we have this incredible innovation, and here you and I are talking. I’m using a Google phone; I have no idea what you’re using, and it just doesn’t matter to me. We’re able to communicate, and it’s because of interoperability and open standards.
In air traffic control, when you look at almost any ground-based system, you’ll typically come across some big barriers in trying to communicate with that system or interact with it or get data from it or push data to it. You’re unlikely to find a standard, globally-accepted way of doing it. If you do, it may not adhere to an international standard. And, there may be confidentiality issues, which is silly. If I am a radar manufacturer and I have an interface control document and I write “confidential” on it, that somehow the format of the radar data is a trade secret worth protecting… in 2017.
A lot of companies have made a lot of money over a long period of time by having these proprietary interfaces. That means that if you bought something from me and you want to connect my system to that other system to gain some sort of integration benefit, you have to call me up and get my secret code to figure out how to do that. If it’s only money, that would be one thing, but it’s all that additional pain of getting the vendors to work together… Take an example of runway lights at airports. Runway lights are typically purchased and installed by the airport. Obviously, they’re connected to air traffic control and operated by air traffic control, but they’re maintained by the airport. There are plenty of standards dealing with the lights themselves, but not in how they should connect to other systems. So, if we want to provide some relatively simple automation function – say, automatically adjust light intensity based on weather – we will need to somehow connect the weather system and lighting system together. In an “internet of things”/Web 2.0 world, this kind of ‘integration’ will take a developer a few days. The airport version of this story could take years depending on the lighting and weather systems involved, who owns them, who the manufacturers are and how cooperative everyone is willing to be.
The reason I bring this up is that for ATM to evolve, whether that’s through Aireon and space-based ADS-B, AI, automated lighting, dynamic airport maps for pilots, connected ATC … we must talk more about interoperability and open standards. If ever there was an industry that could really benefit from open standards, I think air traffic control is it. In fact, it’s going to become even more important because of concerns over hacking and related cyber security measures.
It feels a bit like the pre-internet era when we went from analog to digital in telecommunications. The plumbing is built. The systems are there. Now the digital foundation is laid out within ATC. We still have some structural issues to deal with around cyber security, how we should approach standards, how we should approach the life-cycle management of systems, and things like that. However, all future value that we’ll derive is going to come from the combination of data and systems. It’s not going to be from one system that’s going to come in and displace everything. It’s incredibly difficult to displace a system that’s being used. Even if it’s 20+ years old, everybody knows how to use it, everybody knows its foibles, and it’s really the least or lowest risk thing to keep that humming.
Q: With the ATM industry being as complex as it is, would you say that it is a candidate for further automation?
Absolutely. When you look at an automation example, say the “brake to vacate” concept where you can feed weather and runway condition from the ANSP or airport to the aircraft on which high speed turn-off is optimal, the aircraft lands and the correct amount of braking will be applied to achieve the most efficient outcome. That’s a great example of automation that can improve performance, and I don’t know where those trials are at, but that’s the thinking. All that automation relies on interconnectivity of systems. As this interconnectivity improves, I think we will enter a golden era of innovation and automation.
Q: What are your biggest lessons learned, and how has this influenced the vision for the future?
I think with lessons learned…. It’s a funny thing to say, but I don’t look backwards that often. I remember once describing entrepreneurship as running as fast as you can through a dark forest being chased from imaginary wolves…. So, from that perspective it’s a pretty simple lesson – keep running. However, in terms of conscious shifts I’ve made over the last 20 years – I now value unity and cohesion over anything else. It’s like, we’re on this little boat, and we started with two or three men. You can afford to get the direction wrong because you can alter the course but at the end of the day, if you’re not all rowing in the same direction things will fall apart in a way that can’t be put together again.
In practical terms this means that when I’m sitting in a meeting and there’s a divergence of opinion, do I want to be right or do I want to be united? Sometimes that’s the choice. More than once, I think that striving for unity as a general principle has been the best way to go. There is a lot of hard graft in the early years. You are leaning into the wind. You’ve got a lot of people calling you outright crazy. So, if you’re not united, it quickly can fall apart.
The other thing is, if you have persistence … if you have staying power, and a commitment to what you set out to do … I think eventually you’ll get there. The lesson I have out of that is, make sure you commit to the right thing. If you’re prepared to be successful no matter what you do, then make sure you do what you want to be successful in.
I feel lucky that I kind of fell into this field and still to this day Moodie and I care a lot about the industry we are in, the people, the dramas, the opportunities and it’s all very interesting. Aviation affects a lot of people. To the extent that we are successful, it’s very rewarding.
Today, Searidge is owned 50% by NAV CANADA and the other 50% by NATS. This is something that’s completely new for the industry where you’ve got two ANSPs that have converged on a small technology company. What’s the model for that and where’s the book that says this is how you should set up the governance and this is how you should position yourself in the marketplace. So, that’s interesting and challenging, in a positive way, where we all get to think about what is the business model for that, because I don’t know of an obvious example. If you look at the ANSPs in question, you’ve got NAV CANADA and NATS that are in fairly interesting positions themselves as privatized entities and fairly unique in terms of what they bring to the table and how they can complement each other. There’s all kinds of ways the relationship can go that we’re excited about.
And, on the technology side, with interoperability being key, I think this is where we’re entering a really interesting era. There’s the element of automation, but I think also of integration and the controller experience. If you think about AI, I think a lot of the early benefit is going to be in improving the user experience, and in our case a user might be the technologist or an air traffic controller or a supervisor.
For us, it’s about raising the overall level of performance. What tends to happen in air traffic control – in service situations – is you try to have a level of service that is within a range of your best performer and the newest controller who just joined the team. And, to maintain a level of performance you should stay within that range. Where I think AI is going to have an early impact is in raising that performance so that everybody is at the same level as the best performer.
It’s like in the last 10 years, most of us became really good at spelling. It’s not because we do spelling bees and exercises on the weekend. it’s because we have technology now that makes it difficult to send an email with misspelt words. Where we see a lot of opportunity is in performance management, specifically around safety. One of the areas we’re actively exploring, is whether there is a completely new way of imagining safety automation technology.
We have an ability now to look at big data and we’ve got access to a whole bunch of different ways of analyzing that data, in some cases in real time. So, could you – for example, based on the last two years of movement data at an airport – determine the likelihood of there being a runway incursion when a certain set of variables are in play? This happening in real time gives a supervisor the opportunity to say “wait, the conditions are ripe for a loss of separation” or an incident over in that sector, and can I do something about it before it happens? That could be a dramatic improvement to how things are done today, and that’s incredibly exciting.
Improving the basic safety performance is the goal, and when we look at a technology release, it doesn’t matter what we’re doing, it always must have a net improvement to safety and then, whatever else you may be trying to do. I think AI is a huge open field for that and we’re really excited about that. Of course, with the access to the operations staff we now have, we’re incredibly enthusiastic about that.
Q: Do you see technology firms like Searidge having a stronger role to play in the future of ATM, where there’s a power shift in the value chain, if you will, from the ANSP that has the plumbing, but doesn’t necessarily have the innovative drive to try new technologies and come up with some new solutions?
It’s an interesting way of framing it. ANSPs are not technology companies; there aren’t a lot of CTOs in our business and there aren’t many CEOs who have a technology background. I think it does highlight an interesting idea that innovation is going to come from the outside and not necessarily from the inside out. It’s an interesting problem too because even if an ANSP hires the best CTO it can find, and that person doesn’t really understand the business, it’s going to be a real challenge for him or her to move the ball forward in technology.
It took Moodie and I the better part of the last 12 years to understand the business, and we’ve just gone through almost a full technology cycle when you think about it. During the early days, we had documentation saying that there shall never be video in a control tower, whereas the situation today it’s almost a given that every ANSP at some point will be shifting to using some form of video and sensor to provide surface location information independently. That took 10 years, and we’ve learned a lot in that cycle in terms of what works and what doesn’t work. My hope is that the next cycle is going to be a lot shorter.
Q: How do you stay in front of it all in terms of changes that may come? How do you stay ahead of the curve?
I’m lucky that we have a really diverse team. We embrace diversity, and I don’t mean that in any kind of political sense. I mean this in the sense that Searidge has about 50 people who speak 23 different languages, come from a multitude of geographies and educational backgrounds, and have a variety of age ranges. So, we have this incredible diversity of thought within the company. For the longest time, I did not have an office; I kind of refused to move into an office. We have an open office concept – just to listen and hear the diversity of opinion and experiences. It’s how you can pick up on new trends and ideas.
It’s easy for us sometimes to rule out a technology and say that’s interesting, but it’s not going to have an impact…. However, some of the trends are impossible to miss. I don’t think I’m a visionary by saying AI’s going to have a huge impact. I think that one is easy to see. Same with drones, for example. That’s another easy one to recognize and there’s huge value there, and it’s another wave that really is impossible to miss. Interoperability and the impact of cyber security might be a little more subtle, but it will underpin much of the next big innovation cycle and in that respect, it’s a very exciting time to be working in this industry.
It will indeed be interesting to see what the next 5 years will bring…. Watch this space!