Aviation – An Industry Ripe for Disruption

How a technology company is revolutionizing aviation efficiency through better data management

This week’s Vantage Point interview is with Ian Painter of Snowflake Software, an award-winning provider of cloud and on-premise software solutions for the aviation industry, which he co-founded with Eddie Curtis in 2001. Its Laminar Data Platform is the world’s first commercial software platform dedicated to fusing, cleaning and organizing the world’s aviation data and making it available in real time. Ian and Eddie had been working for Ordnance Survey of the UK for several years before they decided to go off on your own to start Snowflake Software.

Q:  What got you started and what was the problem you were trying to solve?

So, it’s quite an interesting story really. My whole career’s been involved in data management, and at Ordnance Survey – the UK’s national mapping agency, which is the equivalent of the US Geological Survey – Eddie and I led a flagship program called OS MasterMap, which provides highly-detailed geographic data of anything bigger than 20 centimeters on the ground. So that’s a database with nearly a billion features in it. At the time, we built the largest spatial database in the world.

When the program was delivered in 2001 we resigned from our jobs to set up Snowflake, but the interesting part of the story is we actually resigned on September 11, 2001 which was quite a monumental day to start your own business. I mean, in the morning everybody was gossiping in the office that Eddie and I had resigned, and then in the afternoon the actual realization of what had happened in the Twin Towers brought everything down to a big bump. My boss at the time instantly said, “Well, the industry is going to collapse,” and it did. The IT industry in the UK pretty much collapsed within about three or four days. The consulting day rates and everything just tumbled.

But we decided to push on. We were very niche, focused on managing map data in big spatial databases. It was really the first time people were considering maps as data that could be analyzed and queried to get business insight from. This was a substantial change from when digital maps were just and efficient way to print paper maps. This is very similar to aviation, where you have a huge amount of aeronautical data, the sole purpose of which is to print a paper AIP (Aeronautical Information Publication), or a paper chart. Aviation hadn’t yet taken that journey, moving from products or paper publications to actual data sets – and aviation is still in the midst of that transition.

When we started we were very focused on local government in the UK – nothing to do with aviation. It was all about managing spatial data and databases and we created our first software product on the back of the work we’d done at Ordnance Survey. The idea was that anybody who knew something about databases could use our software product to manage spatial data and anybody who knew something about spatial data could use databases to manage it.

So, it was like trying to glue those two fields together that previously had been very separate. We were trying to bring spatial information closer to mainstream IT standards, rather than spatial information needing its own types of databases and its own type of software, which at the time they called “GIS,” geographical information systems. We were just saying, “You’ve got all these things like an object-relational database management system as developed by Oracle, and they have started introducing location-based data types, so why would you need something special? People don’t think that a string or a number type is special, so why should spatial data be special?” We were trying to produce a product that would simplify and commoditize spatial data and make it easy for people to manage.

And, we had a reasonable go at that. I mean, Snowflake started in 2001 and for the first 11 years we were 15 people doing around 1.5 million in turnover. It was doing okay for a business, but it wasn’t really growing; we were adding about one or two people a year.

Then we got to the stage where FAA and Eurocontrol were looking to introduce more standardization, the whole idea being how we could bring more mainstream technologies and non-industry players into the industry to try and expand the supply base and create more efficiencies. When you come from the outside and look at the air traffic management (ATM) industry, it’s incredibly proprietary. And it’s got a very, very narrow supply base.

So we applied and worked in some research programs where FAA and Eurocontrol were actively looking for players who weren’t currently in the aviation space, to work with a whole load of new standards they were planning. And we were able to – at the time – take our technology from the UK local government space, and within four or five days adapt it to work with some of the new aeronautical standards.

Once we did that and found how easy it was – mainly because FAA and Eurocontrol were taking the step to try and make things simpler and more mainstream – we started to think, “The aviation industry is incredibly proprietary. It’s very monopolistic. It’s very ripe to be disrupted. It has a huge amount of inefficiencies, and it’s very behind the technology curve.” And so, we were looking at that, thinking “It’s a global market, and growing. And, it’s much better funded than UK local government, which is getting budget cuts year on year.” There was much more of an opportunity to make a big difference, both from a financial perspective, but also from a societal need to drive efficiency and drive down environmental impact – all these things, by applying what is basically mainstream IT best practice. And so, we saw that opportunity and then jumped into it. And that’s how we got into the aviation space.

Q:  What was the early success story in terms of getting your “foot in the door” in the aviation industry?

We started doing bits of research for Eurocontrol, building prototypes for the new standards. And, then the SESAR Joint Undertaking created a competition called “SWIM Masterclass.” So, we approached NATS saying that we would like to work with them on this. At the time, they had an idea for extended arrivals management, which was an idea of creating an open interface on top of the Heathrow AMAN System and then sharing that data in a standard way to adjacent ATC centers (dubbed the XMAN project.)

To get a foot in the door, we offered to do that work for free. I think it cost us about 60,000 pounds to build the prototype, and NATS provided some subject-matter experts to help us. We built it and ended up winning the SWIM Masterclass for the first year. We had been up against some big players, we came out of left field and nobody really knew us at that time, so to win the prestigious award was amazing. We were very grateful to NATS for providing the idea, but they were also amazed at the speed with which we turned that around. We built in about five to six weeks.

The difference was that we did it in an Agile way, employing Agile SCRUM methodology to software development. NATS had never worked like that before. The idea was that we would be dropping what we call ‘thin slices’ of the system to them every two weeks, in a very transparent manner. We did three sprints, and were dropping the live system to them pretty much on a daily basis. This idea of continuous deployment and continuous integration is considered mainstream among software developers like Facebook and Google and all them use all the time.

In this scenario of developing the prototype, for which we won the award, we then went straight into a production pilot with a major UK Airline involved. We managed to get that pilot running pretty quickly, within a couple of months, and almost within another couple of months of it running, the airlines that were involved said, “Look, we’re making really good fuel savings here. You’re making a big difference to us. We want this to go to production.”

So, NATS went through an internal business case and gave us the go-ahead for the production system to build. And, about six months later we deployed that into their CTC (Corporate and Technical Center), which is their production environment. So, we’d gone from research idea to production deployment in a span of nine months. From an industry perspective, this was just unheard of.

And then, the XMAN project won a whole lot of awards and got media attention, because anybody’s who’s flown into London just hates going round and round in circles in the traffic stacks. I think we saved five million pounds of fuel for the airlines in the first year, which are a huge fuel savings.

The whole experience showed that you could do things very quickly, just by the simple means of taking an old legacy system and wrapping it in a modern interface, enabling other airspace users to get insight into the data that previously only NATS had. By getting that insight, the adjacent ATC centers could now make simple decisions to slow down a flight, knowing that – if it were to carry on at its current speed – it will be put into a holding stack when it would enter UK airspace. So, if you slow it down earlier, it burns less fuel and it’s much better from a safety perspective. Also, from a passenger experience, it’s a much smoother flight and a lot less frustrating. And then from an airline’s perspective, they save a load of money on fuel.

From there we started really growing as a business, building smaller production systems for other ANSPs. We have been trying to move up the value chain, so to speak, each system at a time, but that was the first one.

Q:  The ATM industry is beholden to proprietary systems. Do you see that changing, now that people see the realm of opportunity?

I can definitely see that changing from when we got into the industry some four years ago. You now see several forward-thinking ANSPs such as the UAE’s GCAA, NATS, US FAA, Skyguide, DFS of Germany, Airservices Australia, and Airways New Zealand trying to open the industry up, particularly around initiatives such as SWIM (System Wide Information Management), which is mainly where we focus our business. That’s all about trying to standardize the way that data is moved from system to system and organization to organization.

As soon as you start having those open interfaces, it provides an opportunity for someone like ourselves or any new player to come into the industry. Whereas previously, because the industry was based on things like AMHS (Aeronautical Message Handling System) or AFTN (Aeronautical Fixed Telecommunication Network) for the exchange of digital data, which is a completely proprietary network technology, you had to have a physical metal box to get access to the data, which costs several thousands of pounds.

So, there’s been a natural barrier in the aviation – in the ATM space – that stops smaller or newer players from coming into the industry. For ourselves, we came in and focused on the newer parts of the industry that was much closer mainstream IT technology. So, this was standards, web services, XML, open interfaces, and the NextGen view of the world. That enabled us to start building prototypes, get quick results, and impress customers. It enabled us to build a business around a “new world view” if you’d like, the new more-open ATM space.

I think what is surprising is that we expected the industry to move towards that new world a lot faster, because you can see the savings that are possible by just buying off the shelf software used in other industries. Suddenly, for the first time you can buy something from a non-aviation provider and get a lot of economies of scale. This transition is definitely accelerating at quite a pace now, but I think we were expecting it to open up a lot quicker.

Q:  What are some of the changes that need to happen, in your opinion, in terms of the current supply base? How do you see the market evolve?

What surprises me is how narrow the supply base is. I mean the supply base is tiny. But, I think that’s definitely changing. Certainly, from our perspective, coming in with new ideas and not having any legacy is in some ways to our advantage because we can just jump straight into the new. I think that has enabled us to grow significantly in the last three years.

Q:  What does that mean for procurement practices, which can be quite cumbersome? Do you see changes there?

That’s a really good discussion point. There are two things I think: there’s the practices of procurement; and then there’s the practices of implementation – the systems engineering process that exists over the life-cycle of the safety critical or semi-safety critical systems.

When you talk about the procurement side, because the industry has been incredibly proprietary, it favors these big, monolithic boxes, whereas in most modern industries there’s a much more collaborative relationship with the supplier. It’s less arm’s length and a lot of more Agile.  Currently most RFPs in the industry are fixed-price and Waterfall contracts that define thousands of requirements upfront and only deliver the business benefit at the end when all those requirements are complete.  Given the complexity of the problems in the industry, no customer truly understands the problem in enough detail to make this successful, so more often than not the supplier has to absorb the risk of the requirements being wrong and potentially make a loss on the project. This traditional type of procurement results in a very narrow supplier base who build a different “black box” for every customer with millions of pounds of services work.

Changing the procurement practices of the industry requires a change in mindset. It’s a case of “we’ve always done it this way, so we’ll continue that way,” which actually causes a major problem for the industry, as it just permeates more black boxes that cost millions to build, tens of thousands of pounds to change and more than six months to deploy that change. So, I think we’ll see a lot of change from a technology perspective but unless the procurement and system engineering processes change around it, it’s going to hold the industry back from realizing the benefits.

Q:  What advice would you have for future entrepreneurs entering into the aviation industry?

We’ve found that it’s best to start up a business with a domain expert. Domain expertise is huge. We’re four years in and now we’re very different because we have a pilot, and an ex-air traffic controller on staff. We’ve now hired domain people, but it took us a long time to learn the domain. Technology-wise, you know there are some really interesting problems here and they’re actually really complicated. But lots of people can solve problems. Not knowing the domain it was hard, because when you come across customers they talk like everybody knows what it’s like to be an air traffic controller or a tower operator. They talk in almost a cryptic language. And if you don’t talk in that language and understand the operational domain itself, you are going to struggle. I think it took us three years to get really, really, really into the detail of understanding the operational domain. So, that certainly held us back in the beginning.

I think you also must be realistic that the larger players are going to continue to dominate the industry. There are some larger players out there that are changing and are trying to bring in change, and you must be able to work with them and respect what they bring to the table. So, certainly getting some good relationships with the big system integrators is key as well.

We are relentless at trying to change things. So now there’s getting quite a few vocal ANSPs out there trying to change the industry, and trying to commoditize it, so it’s important I think to just keep pushing on. There are different ways of doing it; you don’t have to keep doing it the same way. You know, you can do things differently and still achieve the same safety output, the same data quality that’s needed, you can still do that and trying to bring more mainstream practices or more modern practices into the industry will be a good thing for everybody. So I think that’s a key thing. You’ve got to be relentless at, for us that’s our edge, is that we’re trying to be different in the way that we deliver operational systems.

Q:  What are your future plans; what’s the next step in your journey?

We won a flagship system with the GCAA in the UAE called SWIM Gateway, which will be a key piece of regional infrastructure for the Middle East. It’ll bring together the three main carriers of the Middle East with six airports and several other key stakeholders to create an information exchange hub.

That’s keeping us busy right now. From there we’re starting to get more involved in linking airports and airlines and ANSPs together. Previously, we had been focused on ANSPs only, and we’re starting to get good traction in that market right now. But it’s very important, we think, to start bringing in A-CDM by linking airports to ANSPs and airlines to airports. So, we’re expanding our core business out by trying to link those three together.

From a research perspective, we’re very interested in the data analytics side of things. There are a lot of people doing that, but it’s interesting because we’re working a lot on harmonizing multiple sources of data from lots of different organizations into one source. Because the industry has been very siloed, once you have the harmonization standards you can start bringing data together and running analytics on the data. That’s never been done before. And, it can start solving some problems in a reasonably straightforward manner, using analytics tools. So, we’ve been doing quite a bit of research into that side of things.

We’re also considering a different kind of business model where we embed our technology into a partner’s, rather than solely doing direct business. So that’s something we’re experimenting with as well. There’s lots of change and lots of growth to deal with, and we’re now actively seeking investment. That’s a big change in view of the fact that we’ve grown organically, with Eddie and me still being the major shareholders. So, that’s going to change for us, but to carry on growing we need external funding to keep pushing on.

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