Tag: Technology

Don’t Fall in Love with Your Technology – AiP 001

Read Time: < 1 minute

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Ever been stuck in a long line-up at airport security and wondered how it could be sped up? Eric Bergeron did, and so founded Optosecurity in 2003, which provided the world’s first and most deployed remote screening and centralized image processing solution that helps airports reduce costs, increase throughput, and enhance security. Optosecurity has recently been acquired by Vanderlande Industries, the global market leader in logistics process automation for airports, express delivery and warehousing.  

Twelve years later, Eric was at it again with FlyScan, which provides automated, airborne leak detection services for the oil and gas pipeline industry. In recent years this sector has been at the forefront of political, environmental and economic debates due to highly publicized pipeline spills, which have made future pipeline project proposals contentious. Monitoring pipelines and detecting leaks quickly (even underground) can prevent these from becoming major environmental disasters.

In this episode I speak with Eric about his motivations, not only as an engineer and businessperson, but about what drives him as an innovator and how he works ahead of technology instead of behind it.

If you like what you hear, help us reach more people by giving us a 5-star rating on your podcasting app, and support innovation in aviation!

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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The Building Blocks for Smart Airports

Read Time: 10 minutes

Grant Furlane, CEO of LocoMobi

How license plate recognition (LPR) technology and the Cloud will improve efficiency and provide better passenger services at airports

This week’s interview is with Grant Furlane, CEO of LocoMobi. Grant has over 35 years of experience as an entrepreneur in the technology sector, specializing in the parking, transportation, cloud computing and network security industries. He has been involved in over 600 million dollars of technology investments and was contracted to lead several initiatives for large public IT companies. He aggressively built three transportation technology companies that established the vanguard for tracking and monitoring vehicle movement, and developed and sold integrated control systems for major airports, hospitals and parking lot management companies.

Q: How did you get started and what got you going?

I’ve never really worked for anybody. I came right into being an entrepreneur from day one. But what got me into infrastructure – believe it or not, this is about 25-30 years ago now – is that I felt we were in trouble. At that time, I was really intrigued with the world of transportation, congestion, and how we were going to deal with the problems I’d already seen in places in Europe. I had co-founded the World Symposium of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) in my late 20s, early 30s and there were three of us involved then. I think that forum has now grown to a membership of about 10,000 strong.

At that time, it was my feeling that to be more efficient in the transportation sector, we had to find ways to be more efficient in moving cars and people. And so, during the first 20-25 years of my career I developed companies that revolved around being more efficient in moving cars and parking cars, which is now leading me into an area that I have always had a passion for – how to manage the transportation infrastructure.

The problem was not that it couldn’t be done, but that the technology just did not exist to form the needed communications infrastructure. As it is still today, if you want to go from one building to another, you’ve got to go into a parking garage and take a ticket or use an ID card. If you want to go to yet another building, you will need yet another ID card because it could have a different building owner, and a different parking garage operator. If you go onto a toll highway, you need yet another pass. When you get on public transit, you need another pass….

Alternatively, if I could find a token as a unique identifier that you could pass around, then you wouldn’t need multiple passes. So, 20-25 years ago the only token available that could be moved around was a license plate. The problem was that the technology to get read rates high enough to make this plausible did not exist. So, for years and years I worked on different algorithms to improve performance – both in terms of speed and accuracy of license plate recognition (LPR.)

Then more recently, the cloud came about which allows a plate to be recognized anywhere, anytime, in real time. Both technologies had to work together for this to really work. And that is, scan a number plate – the unique identifier – and move it around via the cloud.

While I had been developing all the hardware, there was no enterprise hardware that could connect to the cloud directly. So, I designed and built it all – the payment terminals, the payment kiosks, etc., so that we could have an integrated solution. At the same time a fellow named Barney Pell, who is one of the most innovative people in the world, was working on a mobile way for people to pay for transportation and he started with parking as well. However, he was not getting any traction. He had heard about me and got in touch. I looked at his business plan, and said “the software is good but you will need to pivot to a different plan to hit the expected numbers” So, I helped him design some technology that would work with his software and we went out and patented the thing we called Card Kit and Gate Kit, which essentially allowed a cellular phone to find your location, and then when you pay, open the door or a gate.

We now started to see revenue, but it wasn’t very big. So, Barney then convinced me to merge and we formed what is now LocoMobi. A month later in May 2014 we went to the TiE50, which is Silicon Valley’s premier annual awards show for early stage technology startups, and we won. This followed with 2nd place in the “Smart Building” International Startup Competition in Nantong, China. This confirmed that we had leading edge technology as a startup, and so we went out to implement, not forgetting that my goal had always been to be in parking, transit and tolling – anything to do with managing people and transit, cars, trucks, toll highways, and parking. As we’ve become successful on the parking side, landing two huge contracts with Park ‘N Fly and WallyPark for airport parking, we were offered a tender that no one else could do, which was for the Chicago Skyway Toll Bridge – a 7.8-mile-long toll road built in 1958 that connects the Indiana Toll Road to the Dan Ryan Expressway on Chicago’s South Side. This launched us into tolling one year earlier than planned. And, we have now launched transit applications just a month ago.

Q: What got you interested in the airport scene?

I’ve always felt that the airport environment was a distinct and different market all on its own, because it has so many moving pieces. Airports are becoming smart cities themselves. Although I could tackle the airport environment for parking, I felt this was too limiting. An airport is very big in retail, it’s very big in customer service, it very big in parking, and it’s very big in so many other things like media and advertising. I’ve been holding back because I want to offer an integrated solution that makes sense for an airport to want to invest. And so, we’ve set out to build upon what we already have as infrastructure, so that we can manage not just parking, but ground-side and air-side transportation.

And there is security, which also can be managed with the same infrastructure. We’ve come from reading license plates to smart plates, for which we use artificial intelligence – machine learning – so, why can’t we go further? And so, we started a new company called Quest Intelligent Technologies that is one of the first companies out with machine vision technology – or artificial vision or vision intelligence – that provides automatic imaging-based inspection and analysis. This involves using cameras and giving them intelligence to see more than we can see with our eyes. By seeing the constant flow of people and/or cars we are able to see differences or anomalies that allows it to be predictable.

The technology is now at a level that we can see so intensively into something that it can actually layer itself into hard matter. For example, the vision intelligence cameras that we’re testing now can get about seven layers into your clothing. So, let’s pretend a guy walked into the airport in today’s world and had a gun. We would catch that as soon as he walked into the airport. Forget the security screening areas. You can’t afford to do that with all the people milling around. You need to catch the suspect right upon entry. So, this is using CCTV and vision intelligence. It allows us to see things and predict things. In addition to that, I can cover the entire ground side. Why is that car circling over and over? Why is that FedEx truck there for three hours when it’s supposed to be there only three minutes? With all this different information, you can manage the ground side traffic movements.

And, of course the parking is obvious – it’s what we do now. For example, what happens to my car when I drop it off at the valet service? Does it actually get to the garage? We make sure it does. As soon as we take a picture of the plate, we are watching for that car to enter the garage. We can make sure no one’s switching cars and doing things they shouldn’t be doing. Again, all this data is hosted and shared in the cloud.

Likewise, on the airside we can track assets. Why are there three planes in this area on the tarmac? Why is this delivery truck where it shouldn’t be? We can do this since from quite a distance we can read serial numbers, and we can even visualize differences associated with the asset. Like, why are there three people on that cart when there should only be one? With vision intelligence and machine learning, the possibilities are endless in creating what we can call a smart airport, just like the smart city concept. With the smart city, data are collected from citizens and devices using sensors integrated with real-time monitoring systems, that are then processed and analyzed. The information and knowledge gathered are then used to tackle inefficiency, and enhance safety and security. Technology and digitalization has allowed this to become a reality. It’s a great story.

Q: What are some of the bigger challenges that you’re facing in implementing this vision?

For a person like me who’s always working on the edge, the biggest challenge I have is in introducing change. People are very, very nervous about making changes. And airports have probably been the hardest. Most feel secure when everything is hardwired throughout the airport. Cloud computing as an IT paradigm is still not readily accepted, while for most businesses if you don’t go to the cloud, you’re probably not going to be in business for long. There’s been a real challenge at the middle management level and in the IT departments to accept where everything’s going. By going to the cloud, in many cases, you can eliminate half the IT department. Making such a move can make the operation twice as efficient. The return’s immediate as far as the investment is concerned. And the results for the operation are even better. Now you’re getting real time information and the ability to predict stuff. However, because it can be such a complicated presentation, we really need to get to the right people to show them what the technology can do for them. Then again, five years ago I couldn’t convince people to use LPR for parking management. Now it’s the standard in every single request for proposal (RFP.) People thought I was crazy at the time!

Q: The RFP process – it’s one of those things you come up against when you’re dealing with government organizations, which airports are for the most part. What’s been your experience with this procurement culture?

It’s primitive. Let me tell you why. You have people who have all this infrastructure already built in the airport, and they’re afraid to move away from it. So, when it comes to procurement, they end up asking leading edge technology companies to move backwards! They will ask vendors for a certain technology because that’s what they have. And they have relationships with the people who put that in. But here’s the biggest problem. And we all see this all the time. Typically, in order to bid on an RFP, you must reference up to five installations that have been running for five years, etc. Well, this means that you will have legacy technology. It’s like saying, “If you have anything new and innovative, you can’t bid it.” I come across this time and time again. The innovative companies that can provide most value in terms of new concepts and technologies are simply not given the opportunity to enter the market, because of this old-style procurement practice of very prescriptive RFPs.

Q: How have you been able to get around that? Would partnerships or joint ventures with established companies be a way forward for you?

Absolutely. Our approach has been to go out and talk to innovative owners; people who have money in the game. When you are a startup or inventor, you need partners not just customers who are prepared to work the good and the bad with you. Because there are tough times when you’re developing technology. Whether it be Bill Gates of Microsoft, or Steve Job of Apple, or Henry Ford, it doesn’t matter. You are going to fail and gain, fail and gain. But when you have partners who believe you can get to the goal line, it makes all the difference. So, we said, “Okay, let’s go after innovative clients – clients who would listen.” And, we also decided to pick up a couple of big ones.

So, the first one I went after was Park ‘N Fly in Canada. Why? Well, I knew who they were, they knew me, and they were bought by CKI, one of the biggest infrastructure funds in the world. As a result, it didn’t take much more than three weeks to convince them to go with LPR, automated payment, mobile transactions, everything, and all cloud-based. So, we probably concluded one of the biggest parking contracts ever, in short time, covering every major city in the country.

Now that we had a reference from seven city airports, we went south and did the same thing with a company called Wally Park that is actually bigger than Park ‘N Fly and we got 21 locations in the US. Technology acceptance is usually the biggest challenge, but suddenly we were gaining traction and the reaction I was getting was, “We get it, Grant. We’re prepared to take the risk.” What got us there quicker than most startups is that we got validation. We won the TiE50 for having one of the best technologies in the world. Then a week later, we won the Smart City competition in China. So, that was the route we took. Further, we created probably the most incredible board there is of any small company, and we brought in people from the industry. That gets you business and that’s what you have to do as a startup. Today – only two and a half years later and now with 40 employees – when I’m bidding for a contract, I have prime, platinum references.

We are still called a startup, but we don’t operate like one. We grew much quicker. We hit profitability near the end of our second year. It’s a much different company today. And all my other companies operate the exact same models – they all have one thing in common. They all can manage on my infrastructure.

Q: What would be your top three bits of advice you would have for any future entrepreneur?

The biggest one – and I’m going to write a book on it – is the word ‘Entrepreneur’. Don’t use it lightly. Entrepreneur doesn’t mean raising a bunch of money and spending it. You have to live it. You have to sacrifice. You really need to feel it, and have the passion, and that’s what a lot of people lack.

An entrepreneur is not a guy who goes and buys a Mac’s Milk or a 7-11. That’s a small business owner. An entrepreneur is a guy who has an idea, and literally will do what he has to do to make it a reality. When I met my wife, I was living in a campground, by choice. I had no money and I wanted to develop my first idea. I wasn’t trying to raise money so I could buy a $3 million-dollar house. That’s not an entrepreneur.

The second thing I’d tell everybody – and this very important – failure is not an option, because there’s no such thing. People will ridicule you and say, “He’s crazy.” You don’t fail. You experience. Everything you do, you build upon. And if you keep the focus, if you truly do it, I mean really keep the focus, you’ll get there. But then it goes back to what is a real entrepreneur? It’s a guy who won’t give up. He’ll be the last guy standing in the plant. He’ll be the guy at home working because he had to lay everyone off. If you don’t give up, there’s no such thing as failure. Most people don’t realize that 99 percent of the companies that fail didn’t realize how close they were to success. They just gave up. Unbelievably, they were almost there. But, that last one percent is the killer for all of us. I’ve never felt I had to give up, ever. There’s always a way.

And the last point is the most important. Be prepared to pivot. I don’t care how good you think your idea is. Don’t stick to it just because you think it’s great, and it has to happen. Don’t be afraid to pivot. Some of the greatest companies in the world started out with one thing, but found another opportunity through it and pivoted, and subsequently were very successful.

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.

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!

Entrepreneurs: Don’t fall in love with your technology

Read Time: 10 minutes

Eric Bergeron, Founder – Optosecurity and Founder & CEO – FlyScan

Fall in love with your customers to solve a need. The rest will come naturally

Ever been stuck in a long line-up at airport security and wondered how it could be sped up? Eric Bergeron did, and so founded Optosecurity in 2003, which provides the world’s first and most deployed remote screening and centralized image processing solution that helps airports reduce costs, increase throughput, and enhance security. Optosecurity has recently been acquired by Vanderlande Industries, the global market leader in logistics process automation for airports, express delivery and warehousing.  Twelve years later, Eric was at it again with FlyScan, which provides automated, airborne leak detection services for the oil and gas pipeline industry. In recent years this sector has been at the forefront of political, environmental and economic debates due to highly publicized pipeline spills, which have made future pipeline project proposals contentious. Monitoring pipelines and detecting leaks quickly (even underground) can prevent these from becoming major environmental disasters.

Q:   What drives you? What’s your vision?

I’m one of those rare breeds. I’m an engineer, but I’m not an engineer in the typical sense that most engineers are; conservative people, who look at data only. I’m more entrepreneurial, driven by gut feeling; an engineer by training, but first and foremost, I’m a business guy. When I did my engineering studies in the 90’s, I already knew I was going to be a businessman, not a researcher or an engineer in a big company. I preferred to learn engineering at school, and then learn financial mathematics after, rather than the other way around where you do a business degree and then people try to explain to you quantum physics and you’re clueless. I preferred to do the hard part first, and then the easier part… when you’ve done nuclear physics, financial math is a joke after that.

I love technology. There needs to be a high content of technology in the business. That’s what excites me. That being said, I’m a very versatile person. The first 12 years of my life I was in telecommunications, the second 12 years of my life I was in airport security with Optosecurity, and now I’m entering the pipeline integrity phase of my career with FlyScan. So, this is the third phase of my career, right now.

Q:   Is there a common thread between those different phases?

A common thread is solving a need. Solving a problem in the industry, and doing it with a high-tech solution that nobody else has done before. I like to be a pioneer. I like to be a first mover, even though it typically means receiving all the arrows and daggers in the back. But still, I like to be at the front. I like to be at the leading edge of technology and business model. I like new technology, and I like new business models.

Q:   How do you find out what are some of the pain points or problems that need solving – that’s the essence of entrepreneurship, isn’t it?

Yes, the first time I did it was with Opto, which was more like a gut feeling – “let’s try that”. I think there was something, because it was like a year or two after 9/11, so security screening was a problem. I spoke to some people at the airport here in Quebec City and I saw that at the checkpoint they had no software to help detect a threat. So, my gut feeling was that, “hey, there’s something to be done here”. That was after I was introduced to the research center at INO in Quebec City, the National Optics Institute. I said, “Okay, you have a solution to recognize objects at high speed. They don’t have this at the airport security checkpoint, so I’m sure there’s something to do here.” It is very much like that for most entrepreneurs; like many, I’m sure I have ADHD, an impulsive personality, and gut feeling driven, so I said, “Okay, let’s do this.”

The second time around, I was much more disciplined. Maybe because of all the pain and the difficulty we had at Opto, which ended up successful, but it was rough. It was a rough ride at times. So the second time around, I met again with INO and they offered me a series of technologies, and I said, “This time around I will document first, if there’s a real need….. Not be an engineer who falls in love with technology, and that there must be something to do with it.”

This time I did it the other way around. So, when INO showed me a list of technologies the second time around they had just finished a project for an airborne sensor to detect oil pipeline leaks. So, before I really started FlyScan, I hired a consultant to do some research because I had money. I also went down to Houston, and met with CEO’s and VP’s of pipeline operators to document whether there was a real need. “Is this something that you would like to buy? Is this something that you need? And if you need it, do you already have it? Or, if you don’t have it, will you buy it?” The last question I asked them was, “do you care? Or, do you think it’s irrelevant? And finally, if you think you would never buy it, let me know right now, and I will move on to something else.”

So, the second time around I had a gut feeling, but I took the time and spent the money to validate if there was a real business need and I talked to the business decision-makers,…. for whom technology doesn’t matter; what matters is the end result. I asked them, “Do you have that? And if you don’t have that, will you buy it?” So that’s what I did the second time around.

Q:   This is the second startup for you – what are some of the key challenges to running a startup?

The first one, of course, is to find your purpose. So, what is your purpose? When you start a company, you start a company for a reason, not just because it’s cool. So, you must find a need that you wish to fulfill, the solution that you need to bring, for which there is no solution out there. Then you need to validate that, and once it’s validated, then you need to execute on building it, and selling it. What I found out is that technology is always cool. The hard thing is never the technology. The hard thing is raising the money, and then selling it. Sales is always the most difficult thing to do. The technology, if you mix talent and money together, it will work eventually. The hardest thing is to convince a customer that it’s worth taking money out of their pocket. When you start, you need to validate the market, talk to customers, and then put in place a financial plan to execute. So, where we are right now; we validated the market, we validated the technology, then I found the money, and now we are in the building phase, and we start the first test flights early next year.

At Opto, it was more like a technology push. My gut feeling was that the market would buy it if we built it. We built it, and the first solution was weapon detection – so gun detection in luggage – and we found out that it was more a nice to have, than a must have. Then we did liquid detection, and we found out that this was driven more by regulations, so airports didn’t really want to buy it. They would buy it if the regulator told them to buy it. We found out the hard way, and that this was a hard way to earn a living. Then we developed a remote screening product to save money for the airport, to increase the throughput, reduce the operating expenses, reduce the capital expenses, and we found out that this was what they wanted to buy, because it saved them money.

So, at my first company, it was a hard lesson learned – start with the business case, start with the money part, and then technology was secondary. The most important thing was solving the business need of the customer. More than, “Hey, I’m engineer, this is cool. Let’s build it and somebody will buy it.” And…. it always takes more time than you expect to sell anything. So, for the sales cycle, you must have a good padding, financially wise, to survive the long sales cycle. Especially in the airport market.

The second lesson learned is that it’s all about people, so hiring is extremely important. You must be sure to hire the right people. The biggest mistakes I’ve made have been in hiring either too many people too fast, and then hiring the wrong people. I also hired great people, and they are still with Opto. Over the years now, the most valuable lessons I learned were mostly related to human resources. It’s never been the technology so much…. hiring is extremely important. Firing is also extremely important. You must fire people quickly if you have any doubts.

I’m a big fan of this now – psychological testing and profiling – and it’s mandatory for hiring at FlyScan, because you want to have, as a team, people who are complimentary. You absolutely don’t want to hire people who are like you because then you will crash and burn. I’m the intuitive, impulsive type, and the last thing I need is a CFO who is intuitive and impulsive. I need somebody who is methodical, logical, like a Vulcan in Star Trek. That’s what I need to compliment me. If I’m a sales-driven guy – an outside-looking guy – I meet with customers and I meet with partners. Then, I need somebody who’s going to run the show in-house, and will manage the timelines, the projects.

So, as far as the steps, step zero there’s always the technical skill. But step one is the psychological complementarity of the team, in terms of style. You need a complimentary team, and then you need people with whom you will have fun. If you hire somebody who’s very aggressive and negative, it’s going to fail. If you hire somebody who’s controlling and he wants to take your job, it’s going to fail. You need to hire people who are complimentary to you in terms of skillset, in terms of style, and in terms of personality.

Q:   What do you see as being some of the biggest challenges in the aviation sector, when it comes to introduction and adoption of new technology?

Well, there are many factors. First of all, it’s a great industry. I love that industry and I’m still happy to be at Opto as a board member, because I like to follow what’s going on there, and there are great people in that industry. But there’s a big difference between North America and Europe. What works in Europe, will not necessarily work in North America. It’s changing now. You see today that airlines are aligned with airports, and airports and airlines are aligned with TSA, so I think we’re getting there. In the 90’s through to the late 2000’s there was a disconnect between the business drivers of the various stakeholders, as compared to Europe where these were much more aligned.

In Europe, the airports are privatized and business-, or profit-driven. They’re responsible for security and therefore they want to control the cost of security. So, if you come to them with a solution that saves them opex and capex, increases the throughput, increases retail revenue, they will love that. Because there’s an alignment of interests from the airport financial need, with the passenger need, with the airline need, and the security cost. In North America, in the recent past, there was a disconnect in business model between the security of the airport, and the needs of the airline, and the airport. For agencies in charge of checkpoint security, their goal was to find the bad guys, not to facilitate commerce at the airport. The airports did not control anything with regards to security technology at the checkpoint, not did the airlines – it was a nationalized approach. Today, I think the situation in North America is changing for the better.

Q:   Turning to FlyScan, drone technology is developing very fast and rapidly. Do you see that as the next step in terms of evolution of the product offering?

I think that drones are only a means to an end. They are not an end in themselves. What matters to the customer, once again, is that they don’t care about the technology, they care about the end result. They care if you can solve their business needs, so in the case of a pipeline, they want to find out if there’s a leak. They will not care if the leak detection is provided with a drone or a helicopter, or a satellite, or a guy walking on the line. It’s outcome based. They want to find the leak, and they want it to be fast and cheap. Then it becomes a question of, well how do you implement the delivery to make it fast and cheap? Drones, I think, are getting there, but I think that drones are cool for a short range punctual inspection. But, because of current regulations they are not there yet for long range, autonomous inspection. What would make sense at FlyScan is to install our device under a drone, you enter the GPS coordinates of the pipeline, tell it to go for three hours, and fly back, or go for four hours and land, and tomorrow do the rest of the segment.

It would make sense, but today regulations in Canada and the US will not authorize us to fly long distance at low altitude at high speed. Because our sensors are in the hundreds of kilograms, flying something at 100 meters altitude at over 100 km per hour, just think about the amount of kinetic energy in that flying object. No regulator will authorize a flight with no humans on board. So, I think the technology is not there yet to have the collision avoidance, and the regulation especially, is not there yet, even if there was collision avoidance software. The regulations would take years to authorize what makes sense business wise.

It’s very much an evolving thing, so that’s why we’re starting with helicopters, and then we move to fixed wing aircraft, and one day we’ll move to drones. But, it’s one step at a time. What matters is the sensor picking up leaks and whether it’s on a helicopter or a drone, this is secondary. Customers will care about the price, but they will not care about the delivery method.

Q:   What advice would you have for future entrepreneurs? You spoke to some of this already, but if you had the same opportunities, would you do it again?

Well, if I knew, I would do it again – yes! But, right from the start I would start with a remote screening solution to save money for the airport. That would have saved ten years and $30 million of venture capital. My advice would be; don’t fall in love with your technology. Of course, you must be excited about your technology; how good it is, how you will beat everybody else with it, but don’t fall in love with it. Fall in love with your customers and fall in love with your business model, and then the rest will come naturally. That’s the first advice. My second advice is; take your time to hire, and when you hire somebody, you must be bullet proof certain that this is a great person, and the minute you have any doubt; fire them! So, ask yourself, would I trust this guy with my life? And, if the answer is no, don’t hire them.

As a concluding point of the interview, I could not help but reflect that I had heard this time and again from entrepreneurs who’ve done startups. For a startup, having the right team is extremely important, even more so than financing, since individual team members play a crucial role in turning vision into reality. Make sure you have a group of competent and complementary team players.