A Brighter Future for the Black Box

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Toronto-based Star Navigation is aggressively marketing real-time tracking technology that could help avert future airline disasters

In the vast depths of the southern Indian Ocean, amid ancient underwater volcanoes and deep trenches, search crews continue to scour the seabed for remnants of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which disappeared en route to Beijing in March 2014. The largest and most expensive search in aviation history has, so far, turned up nothing.

The outcome could have been different, says Viraf Kapadia, the founder, chairman and CEO of Toronto-based Star Navigation Systems Group Ltd. ($SNA:CA),( FWB:S3O), (SNAVF) if the aircraft had been equipped with the company’s STAR-ISMS® In-flight Safety Monitoring System. “With our technology, you know where your airplane is 24/7,” notes the former accountant turned entrepreneur, who launched Star Navigation Systems in 2000. “You have an eye in the sky with the ISMS on board.”

Designed to significantly surpass the traditional “black box” flight recorder – a technology that originally dates back to 1939 – STAR-ISMS® offers a wide range of features and benefits, including real-time flight data transmission, pro-active aircraft monitoring by ground personnel, early warning and detection of mechanical problems, and the collection and analysis of data that allows for significant improvements in operational efficiency and cost savings.

Unlike a black box, which simply records flight data, STAR-ISMS® transmits encrypted pre-analyzed information in real time via satellite to a ground monitoring station, where it is decrypted and stored. “We are a proactive black box,” says Kapadia, “instead of a reactive black box. You don’t even have to look for a black box.”

STAR-ISMS® has been tested and certified for air-worthiness by several national transport authorities, including the Federal Aviation Authority (F.A.A.) of the United States and Transport Canada.

Combined with STAR-A.D.S.™ (airborne data services), which provides proven satellite communications, STAR-ISMS can generate savings for airlines in as little as six to nine months through measures like improved fuel management, more effective maintenance, and reduced aircraft downtime. Airline operators can track more than 13, 000 parameters, captured in detailed end-of-flight reports that can be customized for each airline’s needs. (That compares with only 300 parameters for a typical black box). Based on a recent audit of the system with a commercial airline, Star Navigation fuel expert estimates that the system can save airlines about $35 million a year.

Some competitors claim to offer similar benefits, says Kapadia, but Star Navigation actually delivers – and has the patents. “We monitor the aircraft better than any system in the world,” he adds. “And we can do it more efficiently than anyone else.”

Despite the benefits of STAR-ISMS®, the global airline industry has been slow to embrace real-time tracking and monitoring technology. “The world is moving on, and I want to tell the industry, ‘Let’s move ahead with a system like ours,” says Kapadia. “Everyone loves what we have. It’s only a question of getting people to realize that with STAR-ISMS, you can enhance safety and increase your bottom line.”

In the wake of tragedies such as MH370 and the 2009 crash of Air France flight 447 off Brazil – when it took two years to recover the black box from the ocean floor – the industry is facing increasing public pressure to improve flight tracking and aircraft health monitoring.

Public confidence in airline safety was also shaken in the summer of 2014 after a series of plane crashes, including Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, allegedly shot down over Ukraine, and the crashes TransAsia Airways Flight 222 and Air Algérie Flight 5017.

The industry is responding, albeit slowly. In December 2014, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the trade association for the world’s airlines, submitted the recommendations from its Aircraft Tracking Task Force to the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), an agency of the United Nations. The recommendations will be considered as ICAO works to develop a Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System (GADSS).

Star Navigation was recently invited to participate in a focus group formed by ICAO and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which will develop recommendations on real-time flight data streaming and data analytics, to be presented at a Montreal conference in February 2015. Kapadia hopes the technology will eventually be mandated by national and international transportation authorities.

In an industry known for razor-thin margins, airline leaders have sometimes cited cost as a barrier to real-time tracking technology. But Kapadia notes that – on top of helping airlines realize efficiencies – STAR-ISMS® and Star-A.D.S.™ can be operated for as little as $12 to $15 per flight hour. It’s an extremely small price to pay, he adds, to provide additional protection for an aircraft worth more than $100 million.

Star Navigation is now actively developing new applications for its technology, including in-flight medical monitoring, environmental monitoring, and ground-based systems. In December 2014, the company announced a two-year research partnership with Montreal’s École de technologie supérieure (ÉTS), Silkan Solutions Inc., Airmédic Inc., and Centre hospitalier universitaire (CHU) Sainte-Justine. Funding will be provided by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and Quebec’s MEDTEQ Consortium.

The partners in the project will work on improving emergency medical services (EMS) and air ambulance transport by providing direct, real-time transmission of patients’ vital signs to ground medical dispatch centres, as well as visual assessment data and geo-positioning. The STAR-ISMS® on-board system and its data gathering and secured communications capabilities will be the backbone of the project.

Star Navigation is evolving from an R&D- and finance-focused firm to very much a sales-driven company today, says Kapadia. He estimates it has generated an estimated $35 million in private financing over the years. In 2012, Star added former Air Canada president and CEO Pierre Jeanniot to its multinational team as a director. And its May 2014 acquisition of the assets of LUXELL Quebec Technologies Inc. diversified its product portfolio and gave immediate access to additional, complementary business and sales for its military division, STAR-MMI™ (Man Machine Interface).

The company’s customized/ ruggedized display panels have a variety of critical applications for the defence, aerospace, medical and automotive industries. Some of its clients include Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, IRTS of France, Japan-based Jepico and CAE of Canada. STAR-MMI™ has teamed up with several complementary partners worldwide to ensure global coverage, and it covers the entire life cycle of its state of the art display products, from design through manufacturing/qualification, test engineering and integrated logistics support.

Star Navigation is also working towards securing other airline technology patents. Kapadia says he plans to expand the company in the coming years into big data services that will make airlines more efficient and profitable. “I look at things,” he says, “and I find ways to save because that translates into profits.”

Both the ITU and ICAO are looking at the use of existing technologies to put in place an efficient system for worldwide flight tracking and monitoring. Star originally presented its views on flight data streaming and monitoring in May 2014, and was subsequently invited by ITU/ICAO to join the focus group. The group will develop recommendations on real time flight data streaming and data analytics to be presented in February 2015 in Montreal, along with the ICAO High level Safety meeting. The group’s participants include key industry players such as Malaysia and Asia airlines, Teledyne, Panasonic and Inmarsat. It will eventually identify the requirements for telecommunication standards for aviation data cloud computing.

Benefiting from its experience and expertise in real-time aircraft data monitoring, analysis and streaming, Star Navigation is taking the lead in identifying scenarios for cloud computing for flight data and in identifying the requirements and issues related to the transmission of flight data. “The ITU focus group results” says Kapadia, “will hopefully be an additional major contribution towards the establishment of international standards for the efficient use of real-time flight data.”

In another initiative established after the loss of MH-370, the IATA Aircraft Tracking Task Force, at which Star presented earlier this year, has now issued a report with recommendations concerning the continuous tracking of aircraft. One of the recommendations is that airlines implement existing technologies to close gaps in their current tracking capabilities within a 12-month time frame.

One of the features of Star’s STAR-A.D.S.™ system directly addresses this issue. For instance, had Air Asia flight QZ 8501 been equipped with Star’s STAR-A.D.S.™ system, it could have provided ground personnel with the original flight path, overlaid with the deviated flight path, as well as a display of the prevailing weather conditions. In addition to the satellite-based, real-time flight tracking capability, any aircraft systems malfunctions would have been transmitted to the ground and, in case of a catastrophic event, the system would have streamed the black box data to the ground in real time for as long as possible. The system is proven and available now on several types of aircraft such as the A320 and B737. “Star encourages all stake holders, airlines, manufacturers and regulators,” says Kapadia, “to accelerate their work on this critical matter and to bring forward their recommendations for change as soon as possible.”

Star Navigation Systems Group Ltd.

203-2970 Lakeshore Boulevard West
Toronto, Ontario
M8V 1J7
Telephone: 416.252.2889
Fax: 416.252.3963
Email: sales@star-navigation.com

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