Tag: Air traffic management

From Drones Beware to Flight Aware – AiP 004

Read Time: 2 minutes

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As more and more drones take to the sky, and ambitions for drone delivery services and beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) operations get ever-greater, the airspace is set to become increasingly congested. Concerns over hazards to commercial manned aviation are well-founded with calls for regulation. There are also concerns over privacy with drones flying above people and private property, or too close to restricted areas like airports and other critical infrastructure.

At the same time, regulators are cautioned not to introduce rules that will run roughshod over an emerging industry full of potential. A solution is needed to inform drone operators where they can and cannot fly, and allow for the safe integration of drones into the airspace – a solution called unmanned aircraft system (UAS) traffic management, or UTM.

In this episode I speak with Marc Kegelaers, CEO of Unifly, an award-winning software company that has developed such a solution – a platform for the safe integration of drones into the airspace. Of late, Unifly has been getting a lot of press, through its involvement in numerous demonstration in Europe and elsewhere, which has also created a lot of interest from VCs and potential customers – the CAAs and ANSPs.

Of course, there have been lessons learned along the way, from first needing to build a system for mission critical applications that is an open platform, upon which you can then start adding user interfaces. At the same time and most importantly – listen very carefully to the customer. And, as a ground-breaking company, one must be an evangelist and lead with a vision of the future when it comes to management of the airspace.

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To the City Hopper, Not the Chopper – AiP 003

Read Time: < 1 minute

Please subscribe to the Aviation Innovation Podcast on your preferred podcasting app. We will be on Spotify, Soundcloud, Apple Podcasts, Stichter, and Google Play.

Ever been frustrated by heavy traffic when you are in a rush to get to that all-important meeting? We all have! So, instead of being stuck in traffic gridlock, what if you could rise above it all, and quickly and comfortably fly to your urban destination in a 2-person pod the size of a Smart car?  That’s the idea behind Volocopter – an urban air taxi – and the brainchild of Alexander Zosel and Stephan Wolf, two entrepreneurs with a vision for urban air mobility. I guess the Jetsons must’ve influenced them!

In this episode I speak with Jan-Hendrik Boelens, chief technology officer at Volocopter, about the massive potential of urban aircraft systems, and the challenges that still lie ahead of the company as it moves towards commercial certification.

If you’re listening to this episode during your commute… maybe you’re stuck in traffic… take a look above you and imagine what it would be like to hop over it all!

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Let’s get digital, digital, I wanna get digital, let’s get into digital….

Read Time: 14 minutes

Digital air traffic services will help create the smart airport of the future, offering greater flexibility, enhanced security, and more efficient traffic management at reduced costs.

Digitalization is starting to take hold in aviation in a big way, with promises of greater efficiency and productivity improvements, new insights and better decision-making, and further innovation. It is an evolutionary process that will yield revolutionary outcomes, as it is set to change business models and provide new, value-creating opportunities.

For Saab this journey started some 15 years ago when LFV, the air navigation service provider (ANSP) of Sweden, presented Saab with a problem – whether it was possible to provide air traffic control from a remote location in order to keep an airport from permanently closing down due to the high cost of maintaining a staffed control tower. This spearheaded the evolution in the air traffic management (ATM) industry.

The collaboration that resulted between LFV and Saab was a success and put into operation the first Remote Tower Service (RTS) in the world. In June 2016, the partnership evolved to the next level, with LFV and Saab establishing Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions (SDATS), combining LFV’s expertise in delivering digitalized, innovative and certified operational solutions with Saab’s technological leadership and global organization. The company commenced operations on 1 September 2016. In this episode of Vantage Point, I speak with Per Ahl, the newly-appointed CEO of SDATS, about how this came about and his vision for the future.

Digitalization is one of today’s big trends and has been for a while. In many ways, aviation is playing catch-up, with Saab being one of its main proponents. What got this going for Saab?

It all started with LFV – the air navigation service provider of Sweden – approaching us with a problem that it was getting too costly to provide tower control at Örnsköldsvik Airport and that discontinuing air traffic services would effectively close down the airport. Then, another airport that was in another part of Sweden was on the borderline to be closed down, because of cost. But these airports are still very important for the local communities, and industry and so forth.

So, at that time LFV asked Saab whether there would be a possibility to combine towers – a new type of infrastructure – with the operational side to lower the overall cost. That was actually the starting point for making the feasibility study in 2007-08. The results of that capability study were so encouraging that both LFV and Saab realized that – absolutely – we can do this in a completely new way.

And then when we looked at it differently – cost-benefit and business case wise – that if we combine different airports into a center and centralize the whole operation, what would the gain be? That has been a very interesting journey, to see that by centralizing several airports you can reduce the overall direct cost by up to 20 – 30%.

So, centralization has been driven by this kind of solution, for us at least. We now have one operations center – after we got the first-in-the-world-airport to be certified and operated from the center in 2015. Now, we have four airports at that center. We will be building a second center in Stockholm Arlanda, that initally will have up to four airports in operation next year, but will have the capacity for up to 22 airports.

You mentioned certification and of course the regulatory element is quite critical. How has that played a role? How important has it been for Saab to get the regulatory community on side?

That has been a journey by itself, I will say. There are several different, very important stakeholders, and one important stakeholder is the regulatory part as we are running a safety-critical operation. As we were the front runner, nobody had done this before. So, absolutely, this was very important to have the regulator engaged from the earlier days.

The first tender was released in 2011, and we won that. And then, we started to look into how should an approved system look like. As you know, digitalization and technology itself will be an opener for new services and applications. You need to change the whole regulatory framework. This is something that will take time. So, we made a decision – both LFV and Saab – in 2011, to focus on today’s rules and regulations [based on recommendations contained in ICAO Doc 4444 – Procedures for Air Navigation Services: Air Traffic Management.]

So, we really scrutinized all the different paragraphs in ICAO documentation, the Swedish Air Law, even down to the local airport municipal laws and so on, in order to see whether we could implement the technology, and on top of that, the related operations procedures.

That was the starting point – whether the whole system could be driven as an operational, as-today system. But we realized that we could do much, much, much more with digitalization, and with new applications. But in order not to blur the interaction with the regulator, we put that aside and really focused on delivering the technology package to meet the requirements of today’s operation.

We started to install the first system in 2011, and we had hoped that it would take maybe two years to get the approval. But it took much longer. In 2015 we got the “tick in the box”, and by then LFV and Saab committed 30,000 manhours to provide safety cases and arguments, and all the procedures and human factors analyzes and so forth – 30,000 manhours! But then, for the second airport we could reuse quite a lot and we were down to 16,000 manhours. And then with the third airport, we are down to 5 to 6,000 manhours. We started to have a process now – and we could interact with the regulator and so on.

That has been an eye opener for other regulators around the world. I mean, EASA [European Union Aviation Safety Agency] was one of the first to adopt new kinds of directives. Now ICAO has also started to look into this, and I think it was a very fruitful meeting in Bangkok just a months ago – they have started to realize, “This is something we have to take care of.” It has been a journey to change the mindset, even on the regulator side. But as we have proved, we have a system in operation and we now have competition, and they have done a great job as well. So, it’s not if this will come, it’s already here.

So, it has been really a long journey to come where we are today, and I’m very pleased that during the last – I would say – two years the view has been changing dramatically. It’s not about the technology; it’s how to take care of change management, not just from the regulatory side, but also on the operations side. That has been very, very important.

So, it’s really been a learning process for all, I hear. As you gain the experience, and of course mindsets change, and the culture around innovation and technology adoption changes, would it be right to say that it’s really about getting people to think about new approaches to doing things?

I would say so, that’s been our number one experience. Forget about the technology, the technology provider can solve that. We have proved that. Our competitors have proved that. Everything is revolves around change management. That’s the most important element, to have people change mindsets. That’s the most important part.

If you create a center, and have the whole operation run from there, then you have to move people – controllers from airport A to the center – and you must take care of that movement and the changing [work] environment. That has been a very important element to understand, and to offer this new work environment in the most positive way.

So, clarity of vision and having everyone embrace that vision, that requires quite a bit of leadership and clarity of communication to building that trust. Has that been the biggest element to success?

Absolutely. Yes, definitely. You have to stand up, hold meetings and interact especially with the operations people. And it’s important to have a spokesperson from the operations side who can be part of the whole rollout. That has been very, very important.

We were lucky in Sweden in that we had a program manager from the operations side. In the beginning, he was the most negative person in the group. But we picked him as the Program Manager from the operations side and told him, “Okay, now you have to be on our side, so to speak, and really drive the change technology-wise and so forth.” And he is our best advocate now and salesperson, because in his position he has to be able to say, “Okay, I will not sign off on this solution until I know that my fellow colleagues will accept it.”

So, our system really has been operations driven from day one, and that has been with his help, in order not to be engineering-driven or technology-driven. It’s operations driven. And, it was a generational thing as well. That is, if you have been living at a country regional airport and spending 25 years in the tower, to change to a new way of doing things that’s a tough journey, I must say

But, with the younger generation, it’s a completely other ballgame. We have a huge lack of ATCOs (air traffic controllers) in Europe and in Asia. And with the younger generation, they don’t want to sit in a dark regional airport. They want like to be part of the IT or gaming environment.

Now, there’s an attractiveness of this kind of environment. We have a center with a good work office environment, with screens and so forth and the latest technology. We have one young controller – he’s 25 years old – who came directly from the training academy into the center, and it has worked perfectly. I mean, it was no issue at all. It’s his environment. His background is in gaming, what he does as a hobby and in his spare time.

Then, our Swedish regulator realized that, “Hey, you haven’t been in a regular tower. You must go down to the airport – 600 kilometers away – where you will work for two weeks.” So, they sent him off and after one week he called back to the center and said, “Please, can I come home? It’s so boring!”

So, for us it was very important to know that we were on the right track because we have to be attractive for the younger generation that has not yet [decided to] become an ATCO. We needed to understand how the work environment plays a role in order to be successful in the [labour] market.

That’s a very important point, especially with the [labour] shortages, not just for ATCOs, but pilots and mechanics and so forth. I think technology advances and innovation are very much going to be the magnets for attracting the new generation.
Obviously, how this all started was you were dealing with a challenge – Sweden was dealing with a challenge. But, when it comes to the adoption of digital towers and digital ATS in other countries that may not have the same challenge as Sweden did in beginning, how do they embrace this technology? Their case for change may be different.

It’s different drivers in different countries. If you have a competitive [air traffic services] environment like in the UK for instance, then it’s other drivers. For other countries, where you have a government-owned ANSP, they have other drivers. You can see that aviation is quite a young industry itself. With the creation of airports after the second World War, there are now lots of airports that have very old towers that need to be replaced or refurbished. To refurbish or build a new tower, it’s very, very costly.

[Those airports] will have a very easy business case to justify, and to go for [RTS], because it is at a fraction of the cost. Even in Sweden, our fourth airport – it’s a ski resort up in the western part of Sweden – is building a totally new greenfield airport with the latest technology, including our system. So, to save money, instead of building a “brick and mortar” tower, they go for the [RTS] solution. And what we have offered to them – since their season is only during winter – is that we will provide them with air traffic services during six months of the year. So, suddenly you can base a new business model on a digital platform that was not possible for a “brick and mortar” tower.

And, sometimes you need to have “five and a half” controllers…. You can’t have a half controller, so you must have six and that may be a very costly. But what we can offer is ATC on demand now. Maybe you only have two hours in the morning, and two hours in the afternoon and the rest of the day there’s nothing. That is something we can offer.

So, it’s actually a scalable solution to meet the demand. and, of course, you save significant cost in the actual installation of the capability. Do you see, in terms of future airports around the world, that the control tower as we know it will no longer exist, but will have more sensors providing the necessary information?

Absolutely. If you look at Asia, India and so forth with the huge growth in traffic, they have a lack of ATCOs and they see the digital rollout as part of the [future] infrastructure. Definitely.

Our company SDATS, since I became CEO three months ago, has also transformed into an ANSP. So, we have our own operator certificate. We are a true digital ANSP now. From the 1st of September, the whole center that is in operation now with LFV will be transferred into our company. So, we will have from the 1st of September, controllers on the payroll and everything.

Last week, we had the last negotiation with the union for this transition. So that has been an interesting journey and an experience, definitely. But I think the reason we do this; is for the reason that we need to understand the full spectrum of this – the impact – and then you have to understand how the operation will be run in the future. And the only way [to understand] is to become an ANSP ourselves.

So, what we can offer to the market is not only the technology itself, but we can provide support with operational services and for getting it approved, the required training, and so forth. But as well, in the competition, where there are possibilities. We can offer a full-service concept as that of an ANSP.

Very interesting. No doubt there are some real challenges. You just mentioned one – of course, the labor element needs to be brought along. But, what would be your number one challenge at this point in time?

At this point, in general, it is still the change management part. Definitely. To have everybody involved from the beginning. That is something we always emphasize when meeting a client – you have to have a very, very good understanding of the impact on the whole organization. It’s not only the operations side. It’s also the engineering side. It’s everybody. You all have to be a part of this, because it changes the foundation in any ANSP.

What does that mean for the type of skillsets, mindsets, and then the kind of aptitudes that you need to have on your team to be able to manage this in a proper way? I would imagine technical skills – yes, this is good, but it’s perhaps less important than the human EQ (emotional intelligence) skills.

Absolutely. As I said, we started already in 2006 with this. And then, we had the operational system in 2015. We have, I would say, a huge experience bank in this. Not just on our technology side, but as well how to make this journey or the change part. And I’m very, very lucky that we handpicked the people who have been part of this from day one on the operations side and as well as in leading the change within LFV.

They are now working in my company. That is a fantastic situation – that we can have them onboard – to help guide other customers around the world. And that has been very, very positive. The feedback we get is that [customers] need a “hand to hold”, so to say, because nobody has done this before. We have already had our pitfalls, and know what to avoid. Instead, [customers benefit from] our experience, and that has been a very, very positive feedback.

On a more personal note, you’ve been appointed CEO [of SDATS, a joint Saab and LFV company) – congratulations! And, you certainly have a very impressive career – transitioning from flight dispatcher to airline fleet engineer, to consulting, and more recently to marketing and sales. That’s not something you started out in, but given this broad experience that you have, how has that helped you with some of the early wins at Saab, and also in terms of creating a vision for the future?

I must say this has been a huge experience for me, and a very positive one. I was flying with Scandinavian Airlines as a pilot as well on the DC-9 and 737s. To have seen the whole spectrum in the industry, that has been very, very positive. I have had the pleasure to work with very good people all over the world.

I have always been intrigued that… generally speaking, the rules and regulations and how the operation is performed is still very much from the time of the Second World War. I have always seen the possibility to do it in a more efficient and less costly way. And, to bring people together, so that you no longer have the stove pipes of the past so that you can integrate information between the different stakeholders.

I hope in the near future, we can integrate aircraft information more in the ground system, because it’s still a guessing game whereby the pilot has all the information in the cockpit with the FMS (flight management system) to fly the optimal routes and the environmentally friendly approaches, etc.

But that is not taking into account the ground system, where {ATCOs] are still guessing what the pilot, or aircraft will do. We need to come to some kind of understanding to share the best information and not start guessing how to fly. I mean, it’s ridiculous now in 2019 that we would still operate in the same way.

So, there may still be hope for VDL Mode 4? (VHF Digital Link (VDL) is a means of sending information between aircraft and ground stations, and in the case of VDL Mode 4, other aircraft)

Ha, ha, ha,…. You said it!

Within the context of the Internet of Things – that is really driven more from the software industry and mobile telephony, if you will – it’s very much in the same vein. I see this already in unmanned traffic management (UTM), that conceptually, is quite different. It’s relying a lot more on automation, relying a lot more on digital information exchange, and so forth. So it’s interesting. It may well be that traditional ATM will migrate more, conceptually at least, towards a UTM-type of setup.

I definitely think so. I have always challenged ANSPs around the world, “How do you foresee your role in 10 years’ time or 15 years’ time?” And the response typically is that it will be the same. But it will not be the same!

You have other pressure now, coming from other industries like Google or Amazon and those kind of guys. I mean, they will just go for this, and I’m surprised that the ANSP [community] has not taken action to be part of [shaping the future.] For me, it’s amazing.

What we are doing now, when we design our centers, is that UTM will be a working position within our center in the future. Definitely. But what we are doing right now is the ATS side, for obvious reasons. But, within Saab we have other divisions looking at new surveillance technology, drone tracking, automatic detection between birds and drones, and so on. And this has been very, very successful.

And as well, security from remote locations. We have Vasteras Airport in Stockholm, after working hours at four o’clock the full security operation is run from Stockholm Arlanda Airport with sensors and so on. That would be an integrated part of the center in the future.

So, this is just the starting point and I often refer to the telecom industry. They have had the copper network early on and suddenly you have an iPhone, a smart phone with apps. I didn’t know what an app was 15 years ago, and [this industry] just exploded and I can’t live without it. This would be the same with digitalization of the ATS service, or airport operation.

To wrap up, and looking to the future, what would be your most important goals and objectives in the coming years to continue to create value and drive change in the industry?

I think a very important milestone for us – now that SDATS has become an ANSP and we’ll be running the operation from the center as of the 1st of September – is that we’re going to bring our knowledge and experience elsewhere, to all parts of the globe.

I think there will be some very interesting opportunities in the near term – one, two, three, four, five years from now. Definitely, we’ll be a global change agent in this and we will be part of it. We have already started to push the whole industry in this direction, and I think that will be a challenging journey for everybody. But, it’s the only way to do it.

I would imagine that it will be a somewhat different rate of change in different regions, but I think every region ultimately will need to embrace this new approach.

Yeah. We can see that already now with the space-based ADS-B and so forth. It’s a big change. And the way we have done the infrastructure side of things in the last 50 years, that will not survive. It’s something from the past. We have a continent like Africa…. why should they invest in copper networks, and so on, when they can go directly into this kind of solution and create a completely new operation to support the build-up of the economy in the country in a completely new way? I mean, it’s ridiculous to go the old way.

And we’ve already seen that in Africa, when it comes to a digital telephony, mobile phones are being used for payment services – it’s more advanced in Africa than in other parts of the world. And the use of drones for delivery. I was in Rwanda and saw the Zipline operation to deliver blood products to remote the clinics. And so that’s beyond visual line of sight operations (BVLOS), and it’s already being done in Africa.
Leapfrogging to the next generation of technology is certainly very, very possible in places like Africa, and it’s a region that will be growing quite significantly over the years to come. Interesting times. Well… Per, thank you very much for this.

From Drones Beware to Flight Aware with Unifly

Read Time: 12 minutes

Marc Kegelaers, CEO, Unifly – www.unifly.aero

How one company is raising the level of awareness in the airspace

As more and more drones take to the sky, and ambitions for drone delivery services and beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) operations, the airspace will become increasingly congested. Concerns over hazards to commercial manned aviation are well-founded with calls for regulation. At the same time,  regulators are cautioned not to introduce rules that will run roughshod over an emerging industry full of potential. A solution is needed to inform drone operators where they can and cannot fly, and allow for the safe integration of drones into the airspace – a solution called UTM, or unmanned aircraft system (UAS) traffic management.

In this installment of the Vantage Point interview series on innovation in aviation, I speak with Marc Kegelaers, CEO of Unifly, an award-winning software company that has developed such a solution – a platform for the safe integration of drones into the airspace.

Q:  How did you initially come across the technology and the application of the technology that’s now Unifly?

My background is in aviation. I’m a flight instructor, and for 10 years I ran a flight school that trained professional pilots. While there, I started a department to train pilots for aircraft without pilots, i.e. drones. That was bringing in some publicity for the school, and at an exhibition in Asia, I came across a few young guys – air traffic controllers and a scientist – who had this idea for a traffic management system for drones. They already had a good prototype, which apparently had won some international prizes. They wanted to create a company and asked if I was prepared to be their CEO. I thought, “Well, this is a good idea!” I looked at the technology, what they were doing, and their plans and ambitions. That was in July three years ago, when I decided to join in as a CEO and shareholder. The company was started a month later, and two months after I started to work full time for Unifly. I had to unwind my function as CEO of the flight academy, so I handed that over to a successor, then started to work on the Unifly initiative full-time in October 2015.

Q:  We are experiencing a renaissance of innovation – digitalization, artificial intelligence, autonomization,…. How do you see Unifly within this broader picture of innovation and what’s going on outside of your immediate area of play?

I’d like to think that we are a ground-breaking company. We are very innovative. If you look at what is happening in the world, there’s a fourth Industrial Revolution going on whereby many activities will be driven by robotics and artificial intelligence. We are very much a part of that.

One of the key challenges that exists today is that you have this drone technology which is advancing at a very high pace – and everyone knows that drone technology and robotics are going to be very important – but specifically with drones, they are coming into a world where there is already a lot of traffic. Drones will have to comply with the regulations and rules of the aviation, so it remains safe.

The challenge we have, and I think the entire industry has, is that on one hand you have the world of aviation, which is very safety-driven, but air traffic controllers and pilots have never had to deal with drone operators. On the other hand, you have drone operators who have never been aware of the regulations and the rules that exist in aviation that make it very safe, who now want to have access to the airspace. So we have two different worlds: one relatively conservative world driven by safety, and another world which is innovative and moving very fast, not fully aware of all of the safety rules. Marrying those two totally different worlds, that’s the big challenge. But it’s now happening in aviation, and I’m sure that will happen everywhere in the world.

Look at all the challenges that are now present in the world of autonomous cars, for instance. The technology exists for cars to be driven autonomously, but how do you mix the traffic of autonomous cars with the traffic of non-autonomous cars? That’s the big challenge. In the world of aviation, we are addressing this challenge.

Q:  How do you bridge those two worlds? Does it require a change in mindset that the more traditional industries have adopted over time, or do you see the innovators having to adopt a different mindset?

It’s both. Every traditional industry has its way of doing things, which work fine. The aviation industry is very safety-minded, with good ATM (air traffic management) systems and so on and so forth, and that works fine. Now with new technology, there’s this mindset that needs to change.

Two years ago, I was at a big conference where you had CEOs of large ATM organizations, and questions were asked of the audience. One of the questions was, “Do you think technology will change the nature of your industry within the next 20 years?” I was baffled to hear one-third of the audience say, “No, we don’t think that technology will change the nature of our industry.” That, to me, says that within those classical industries, there’s still a mindset among people who do not see that there’s a lot of technology out there that can actually help them become better and automate more processes. And not only in the aviation industry – I think in many traditional industries that’s the case.

Q:  Indeed, we’ve seen the same in the car industry, until Elon Musk came along and introduced the concept of the electronic car and things started to change. Even going back to telecommunications, you had the postal, telegraph, and telephone service (or PTT) – monopoly service providers that the public was not at all happy with for the level of service and the cost. I think, only when that industry was deregulated, have we seen the kind of things that we now have, our smartphones and so forth. Do you see that kind of institutional deregulation having to take place to make real change happen in aviation? Particularly, I’m thinking about ATM and the interfacing between ATM and UTM

It will take place. What is happening is that we, as a company, are creating the technology to provide highly automated air traffic management for large amounts of autonomous devices. That’s what we’re doing. That’s where we’re going with our technology. Once you’ve done that with large numbers of autonomous drones flying in very difficult airspace, low level airspace, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that you could actually take that technology and start using it for traditional manned aviation. My guess, and I think this will happen, is that the technology we’re building now will gradually – not overnight, but gradually – find its way into the management of manned aviation.

The technology we’re using is vested in Internet technology, which makes a UTM system much more affordable and accessible than an ATM system. The technological change that happened in the telecommunications industry about 30 years ago is starting to happen in the world of aviation. The transformation will be a bit slower than what happened in telecommunications because of the safety aspect. You must be very careful that you do not innovate as rapidly as in the telecommunications industry, because you still have manned aviation transporting large numbers of people in the air. You cannot afford to have accidents. In the telecommunications industry, if you lose a data packet, well, you lose a packet. There’s no harm there. The software will say, “Oh, I lost a packet,” and it will send a new packet. In manned aviation, you cannot lose an airplane. That’s why the transition will be a bit slower, but it will come for sure.

Q:  When we look at the softer side of things – the people element – I would hazard to guess that the way Unifly is organized and how you do things is quite different from a traditional ATM technology company or an air navigation service provider. Aside from the technology, it’s also about people and how we work to get things done. I’m thinking particularly in terms of a more agile approach to software development that’s now permeating to other areas of the business. Do you see change taking place in that area as well?

Yes. To ask me purely from the perspective of the man/machine interface and the world of air traffic management, the user interfaces all assume that the person that is manning the systems has had years of training and is an ATM professional. That means it can be very complex, because the person has been trained.

Now in the world of UTM, you are interfacing with a world of people that have no knowledge, or very limited knowledge, of aviation and air traffic management. Still, you want to give them the same information as is now being used in the world of manned aviation, but in a very, very user-friendly manner. That’s one of the big transformations we are making happen.

Also, in the ATM industry or the aviation industry in general, it is expected that the number of flights will double between now and 2030. Already today we’re seeing record numbers of flights flying through the airspace, which puts a strain on the entire ATM system, because all the procedures in the world of air traffic management are manual procedures and involve people talking to people. The growth of manned aviation will require much more automation than is currently the case, and we’re building the foundation for this with UTM. So, it’s interesting times ahead.

From a development point of view, we use agile software methodology, the same methodologies as are used in developing Internet-type applications. In very short turnaround times, we use a Spring Methodology that enables us to be very quick and still have very high quality.

Q:  So, when you’ve signed up with a new client, such as an ANSP, what would be the average turnaround time to provide them with the necessary tools to start managing, or having some oversight over drones in the airspace?

From a technology point of view, not very much. The fastest we’ve done this is about six weeks. The challenge really is with the organization itself. One of the challenges that an ANSP or CAA (civil aviation authority) has is the processing of flight plans for flight approvals. There is a flight plan system that is used in manned aviation, and it involves a manual process – your flight plan gets looked at by someone, and that someone approves it. That’s based on a certain number of flights per day, per week, and so on.

Now with drones, what we’ve seen initially is that the ANSPs and the CAAs have wanted to use their existing processes of flight approvals and apply that to drones as well. But, guess what? They did not anticipate that the number of requests for drone operations would be much, much, much higher than the number for manned aviation. So, what we are providing are the tools to automate a lot of the processes within an ANSP and a CAA. However, the organization has to accept it and processes have to be created or modified so that they can work with these new tools. The delays we see, or the length of time it takes to implement our software, is not technology-related, and we already have quite a bit of technology available. It’s about presenting the technology to the client, having them work with the technology, and for their organization to define internal processes to make sure that they can use the technology as often as possible. That’s the challenge we have. Typically, we work with an ANSP, and they use our systems for a while in tests and trials – not to test and trial the technology itself, because it works – but to test and trial their internal procedures, to decide who will do what and who will have what responsibility, and how to manage the different users of the system.

Q:  Would you say that it’s then a bit of a journey for the two partners – Unifly and the client – towards solutions that are needed as part of an iterative process? In other words, there is a tendency within traditional businesses to want to buy a complete system or a complete solution as opposed to pursuing a more agile methodology of iterative testing and development. Is this mindset something you’re up against with some of the more traditional organizations you deal with?

No, in fact what we have is a complete system. But, implementing a complete system is a big, big task and we’ve created a methodology to implement the system in phases. The first phase is always, get the public informed about aviation rules and regulations, and where a drone operator can and cannot fly. That’s something that can be turned around very, very quickly. That’s usually the first phase.

The next phase is getting people to issue flight plans. We build function after function so that ultimately you get a full-blown system, possibly after a year or a year-and-a-half. The initial implementations can already be available after a few weeks. So, our experience is in fact that the ANSPs tend to want to work in a phased approach where they say, “Okay, in phase one we want to do this, then in phase two we want to do this.” The only problem with such an approach is that sometimes – as we’ve seen in other industries that have taken this approach – you can end up with piecemeal solutions. For example, just for providing information to operators they use one vendor, for tracking they use another vendor, and then for other functions, other vendors. So, they end up using isolated solutions for individual problems without thinking of the bigger picture. This usually means we have to convince an ANSP to think of the bigger picture and make sure all of the problems they want to solve are addressed in an integrated fashion rather than having a series of piecemeal solutions.

Q:  So, it’s really about the partnership relationship you build with your clients that is quite important. Having that trust there, I think would be a key issue for evolving the solutions that may need to be built. Would that be a true statement?

Yes, that’s very much a true statement. The entire process of implementing a complete UTM system with an ANSP is quite intense. Luckily we now have experience with several customers. We also are involved right now in several research programs in Europe that deal with UTM. We are seen as a company that knows about drone traffic management. We know about manned aviation because that’s the world we came from. So, we are seen by large organizations – ANSPs and CAAs – as a valuable partner that can actually bring a lot of value and knowhow to the table, helping them to tackle this quite complex UTM problem.

Q:  You’re not the only game in town, of course. There are other UTM providers. Do you see potentially, not necessarily a monopoly service provider model develop, but more of a competitive landscape where you have different systems within a certain geographic region – much like you have with the mobile phone networks where you’ve got a federation of systems able to interface with each other? Do you see that kind of a model develop eventually?

Ultimately, that will be the model, but it will take some time. The system and technology that we have developed takes that in mind. There will be in an area in a country, in a region, where there will be multiple UTM systems. So, we’ll be able to say, “Okay, I want to be a customer of A or B or C.” There will be different levels of service or different services that people can buy from different UTM service providers. Specifically, in the United States that is the model that has been chosen from day one. In Europe and other parts of the world, it’s first and foremost the ANSP that wants to make sure aviation safety is guaranteed, so they take the initiative. But ultimately, there will be a time when multiple UTM service providers will exist in a country. However, there will always be some level of oversight provided by the national aviation authority.

We must remember that the aviation authorities have the responsibility for ensuring the safety of the airspace. This responsibility does not just go away with the advent of drones. On the contrary, they now have an additional problem that they need to solve. Some ANSPs have taken the view that the only thing they want is to ensure everyone has a same exact aeronautical data, and that the ANSP does the coordination with manned aviation and all drone operator interfacing would be done by the UTM service provider. Other ANSPs have said “no” to this from the beginning, and that they want to do all of the interfacing with the drone operators as well.

Q:  It’s been an interesting ride so far, but I’m sure there have been some real challenges along the way. What are some of the lessons learned that have resulted in a different approach than originally thought?

So far, the trajectory has been quite unique in the sense that what we set out to do from the beginning, we are still thinking of doing that. One of the biggest lessons we’ve had is that initially when we started the company, we wanted to build, first of all, a product for the drone users to do planning and so on so forth, but we saw very quickly that that was not the best approach.

The best approach was that first and foremost we have to have a good, solid backbone that will be able to process large amounts of information, and be able to process that information in real time as the system for mission critical applications. Once you have that and you’ve created that as an open platform, then you start adding user interfaces. That’s something we learned after a few months. It’s having that very solid backbone – that open platform – that made us quite successful.

The other thing that we’ve learned is – listen to the customer, listen very carefully to what he wants because he’s very clever. We also learned that as a ground-breaking company – a very innovative company – you must be an evangelist. This is new technology and we’re probably the first to build a lot of experience in UTM. I think one of the roles that we have as a company is to say, “Okay, the management of drones is a very complex thing to do, but these are the ways to do it.”

Q:  You continue to get a lot of interest, I suspect, from other entrepreneurs, but also from venture capital. How does that aspect of the business look for you?

Yes, we get a lot of press, and a lot of interest from potential customers. We literally have contacts all over the world. We get contacted by VCs quite a bit who would like to invest in our company, and by universities and such, who invite me to speak about what we do, how to create an innovative company, and how we get the message out to potential customers all over the world.

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Five Actions to Evolve to Consultative Selling

Read Time: 2 minutesI often observe that technology firms in the air traffic management (ATM) industry take a transactional as opposed to a consultative approach to selling. This is unfortunate as it undermines their growth and position in the market.

Whereas transactional selling is about the product, its features and price, consultative selling is all about the value that is to be created. It has less to do with what the customer is buying and more to do with why.  In a transactional sale, value lies within the product and price becomes the primary selection criteria. Who wants to compete on price alone?

It is well-known that high-growth firms differentiate themselves in a consultative approach to selling and in building client-relationships that create more value over time. Thus, the benefits of evolving to a consultative approach are compelling.

So, how do you transition to a consultative approach? The following five actions will get you on your way to better sales performance and growth:

  1. Commit to a vision of the future – ATM is going digital and by taking a forward-looking view of where the industry is going, a technology firm can be ahead of its clients (and prospective clients) on the decisions they need to make. This will require some upfront investment in thought-leadership, sales planning and sales capacity before revenues will materialize. However, it is an investment worth making – we are talking about the future of your business!
  2. Articulate a clear strategy – as an ATM solutions provider, you should position yourself as a partner and advisor on best value turn-key solutions for your clients. By investing in the customer relationship and by taking a consultative sales approach, you can influence investment decisions before a formal procurement process gets underway, and may result in sole source RFPs (download my e-book on Value Creation in Procurement)
  3. Invest in people – make a commitment to improving sales talent and performance that places an emphasis on relationship-building skills and value-creation. This is essential to better understanding and anticipating customer needs, and thus should lead to better account planning and sales pipeline management
  4. Invest in digital – make use of digital tools to provide better customer and technical support, improve collaboration with clients and partners, and build out a products e-commerce platform to enhance the customer experience
  5. Invest in sales analytics – make use of analytics to help decide what are the best sales opportunities and minimize risk. By shifting from analysis of historical data to being more predictive, sales analytics can result in better sales and marketing decisions, account management, new insights into sales opportunities, and sales strategy

Intelligent Solutions for Superior Airport Performance

Read Time: 5 minutes

Christian Onselaere, CEO of ADB SAFEGATE

Helping airports handle more air traffic with their existing infrastructure

This interview – conducted jointly with Momberger Airport Information newsletter – is with Christian Onselaere, CEO of ADB SAFEGATE, a leading provider of intelligent solutions that deliver superior airport performance. The firm provides integrated solutions for the airfield, gate and tower, to improve an airport’s capacity, safety, and efficiency, which requires the involvement of multiple stakeholders – the airport, ANSP, airlines, aircraft handlers, and others – to create a collaborative decision-making platform. In May 2017, The Carlyle Group bought ADB SAFEGATE from PAI Partners, which had previously bought ADB from Montagu and then supported ADB to acquire Safegate International and to form ADB SAFEGATE.

Q: What sets you apart from other solutions providers in this space?

We see ourselves more than ever as an integrator of end to end solutions with a clear focus to optimize the processes at an airport and thus increase the airport’s efficiency considerably. This efficiency has a direct impact on airport and airline operations whether by decreasing turn -around time, increasing the number of slots or cutting down on processes that do not add any value. Airports often do not have the physical or financial means to just expand, re-design or redo parts of the airport. Airports need to operate smarter, by moving away from the siloed systems and toward solutions that work across all key operations across the airport. What sets us apart is that we have built up an impressive resume through our turnkey projects where we have gained wide experience, not only with our own solutions, but also with leading third party solutions covering the tower, gate, airfield and services. Unlike some other vendors on the market, we have a long history of developing innovative solutions in collaboration with our customers, this strongly decreases our dependency on third party suppliers and allows us to have a tight control of all the elements influencing our customers’ operations. Our company is a big player in the aviation market, but at the same time, small enough to give our customers that personal care they need, supported by a very broad range of competences that we have built up with our teams.

Q: Would you say that China, and Asia more generally, is where most of the future business will come from?

China is indeed an important market for us, it has taken us a few years to crack the code but I can now proudly say that more and more airports are selecting ADB SAFEGATE as a key supplier. We were the leading supplier in China already for our advanced visual docking guidance systems (A-VDGS) and apron management solution with over 1000 A-VDGS sold and installed guaranteeing increased safety on the apron.  Our airfield lighting solutions are now being implemented at the country’s leading international airports, like recently with the New Beijing Airport. So, yes, China is a key market where we are now successfully expanding our presence, but let’s not forget that there is so much more happening, whether in the rest of Asia where we see a lot of movement on key markets like Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Australia, or the Middle East or Latin America. The Middle East is really ADB SAFEGATE’s home region, after our historic strongholds in Europe and the US. In the Middle East we see a lot of similarities like we see in Latin America. Important projects that need more than the pure product approach, where we are supporting customers by analyzing how they can improve operations and support them with our global experience managing complex turnkey projects.

Q: What challenges do you face to orchestrate solutions that will work for all, stakeholders? Who is the ultimate customer?

The ultimate customer is always the end customer, the traveler who is only looking to one thing, making sure his trip runs smooth and on schedule, without any hassle or issues. When we unite the necessary stakeholders around the table, their focus is to improve the overall efficiency of the airport and the traveler experience. I agree that many airports still suffer from silo thinking, but I also see a strong will at all airports, airlines, ANSP’s etc… to better collaborate to see the big picture and find solutions that will lead to that improved airport efficiency. In this exercise, we need to have all involved – whether airport management, airlines operations, airfield operations, the ATC or the terminal manager – focused on one clear picture of what the ideal airport looks like and the steps we can each take to contribute to getting there, often in phases depending on priorities and investment capacity.

Q:  How important is involvement of the safety regulator (e.g. the CAA) in the solutions that ADB SAFEGATE may be able to implement?

We involve all key stakeholders when revisiting the airport’s performance and seeing how we can further improve. In the case of Lahore, the CAA played an instrumental role. We would have never been able to increase capacity, or even accommodate diversions from neighboring airports, if it were not for the support of the Pakistani CAA. In Lahore ADB SAFEGATE worked closely together with the airport and Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Authorities to increase airport performance and upgrade capacity to beat the challenging foggy winter climate. We integrated a complete system from the runway to the tower and we were able to radically improve the airport’s availability or ‘weatherproofing’ it as we say.

Q: What new innovations or product upgrades do you have in development?

We have prepared a very interesting set of new innovations, all related to increasing the airport’s efficiency to the fullest. Highlights from ADB SAFEGATE include:

  • The launch of an enhanced Safedock visual docking guidance system which integrates docking, gate and apron control, surveillance and monitoring systems to improve the efficiency and accuracy of aircraft gate arrival, turnaround and departure. Our new system also helps to enhance apron situational awareness and safety and is built on the experience and expertise of ADB SAFEGATE, which has supplied more than 7,000 docking systems worldwide.
  • Our leading LED technology, which is deployed across airfields globally with more than 1.2 m LED fixtures installed. ADB SAFEGATE has supplied two-thirds of the LED systems at more than 700 airports, showing how airports everywhere have switched to this energy efficient lighting technology. ADB SAFEGATE offers the only full LED portfolio of lights and visual aids proven to deliver energy and other cost savings adding up to millions of euros annually.
  • The new Pushback Support Tool that simplifies air traffic control (ATC) workloads and enhances airport safety and efficiency. The tool automatically suggests the optimum aircraft pushback routine, monitors the pushback procedure and warns ATC of potential conflicts with other aircraft or vehicles in the apron area.
  • Also new is A-Lytics, a data analysis solution that provides airport managers with new insight into how well operations are running. The system reveals operational performance related to the airfield, tower and gate, such as aircraft docking times and on-time turnaround performance for departure. Airport managers can now more easily see and fully understand what is happening, how they can improve efficiency and what solutions can be implemented to increase the airport’s performance.
Q: Will the recent change in ownership see a change in direction or focus?

New ownership will not affect our strategy, our approach in the market or our Mission, Vision or Values. We will continue to realize the goals set forward as part of our strategic focus, e.g. build for the future with Airport Performance Solutions, remain a leading innovator in our industry, provide excellent service, create an inspiring working environment and accelerate wherever possible with targeted strategic mergers and acquisitions. More than ever, we want to be the key integrator of choice for airports, maximizing traffic throughput and minimizing the time aircraft spend on the ground while maintaining the highest safety. We support our customers by integrating airfield, gate and tower systems, enabling all parts of an airport to work together as one to increase airport performance, from approach to departure. Our new owner fully supports our company’s strategy. This doesn’t mean that nothing will change. Changes will focus on reinforcing any shortfalls and on creating even greater potential.

Aviation – An Industry Ripe for Disruption

Read Time: 11 minutes

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.

From Entrepreneur to Technology Innovator

Read Time: 12 minutes

Alex Sauriol, Co-Founder & CTO and Moodie Cheikh, Co-Founder & CEO – Searidge Technologies

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[1] 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!

Back to the Future

Read Time: 3 minutes

A re-think for the think-tank on ATM policy.

Yesterday, during the World ATM Congress, a group of industry players launched a think-tank on how the efficiency and performance of air traffic management (ATM) can be improved through greater market liberalisation. I have worked the related policy questions for close to 20 years, first at IATA and then at CANSO in its representation to ICAO, so I cannot help but comment on yet another noble initiative…. Unfortunately, over the years there has been lots of study and debate, but little action to effect the real change we want to see. If we want to improve the efficiency and performance of ATM, and fundamentally change how air navigation services are provided, then we would do well to look to the past – how it all started – with a view to what the future could look like.

In the early days of commercial aviation, it was the airlines themselves that provided for their own navigation aids. Companies like KLM and Imperial Airways established beacons along their routes to the far east. And, traffic control techniques at airports were introduced by the airports themselves, working with the aircraft operators. This all changed after WWII, with the signing of the Chicago Convention wherein each contracting State committed to provide air navigation facilities and services in accordance with international standards. In essence, the responsibility for these tasks was taken away from the airlines and airports. Unfortunately, liberalisation of air traffic management as proposed in the policy paper, either through competition for selected ATM services (i.e. competition for the market) or corporatised (or privatised) ANSPs operating independent of government, does not offer a suitable alternative to true competition (i.e. competition in the market) since both approaches can be gamed by the actors involved. This approach would amount to a mere “tinkering at the edges”, and has already been variously tried.

The best way to accomplish true competition and real change is to turn over the responsibility of service provision back to those who do in fact compete in the market – the airlines themselves (“Sorry, as States we have made a mess of it, and we wish to turn the responsibility of service provision back over to you!”) In meeting this responsibility, the airlines can contract with global companies that provide the communications, navigation and surveillance services that are needed en route in a more efficient manner, much of which is now already satellite-based, and making full use of modern aircraft capabilities. Airports likewise can contract with entities that provide traffic control services in and around the airport, or provide the services themselves. These services would need to be provided at competitive prices since airlines can and do make choices on where they fly and at what frequency. Airports have long maintained that they compete for traffic, thus it stands to reason that they are already incentivised to be cost-competitive. If they are not, their connectivity to the world and the cities they serve will suffer.

Article 28 of the Chicago Convention will at the very least need to be re-interpreted to reflect modern times and available technology. At worst, it will need to be rewritten to reflect the fundamental responsibility that only the State can and should provide – regulatory oversight. States should ensure that aircraft operators have made the necessary arrangements for the availability of facilities and services to facilitate air navigation in a safe manner, to be provided in accordance with international standards and practices agreed for the most part by the industry itself. This will also put a stop to the micro-management by the regulatory community in a service function that should rightly rest with industry. The pace of technological change is just too fast for ICAO and the regulatory community to keep pace, and therefore it must adopt a performance-based regulatory regime.

Yes, what I am suggesting is radical. It entails a break-up of the monopoly air navigation services industry and a fundamental restructure that will result in new organisational forms and arrangements. This is not dissimilar to telecommunications deregulation and the break-up of the PTTs in the 1980s and 90s, which was urged on by public calls for dependable, technologically advanced and reasonably priced services. Further, the advent of the internet has been a significant disruptive force for the telecommunications industry. Such disruptive forces are equally at play for air traffic management that can render the role of the air navigation service provider irrelevant. States can best serve this industry by preparing it for competition, for it will be overrun by technology advancements. The question is: will the industry step up and be the change it wants to see?