The disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 was a shocking moment for most of the world. The loss of the 227 passengers and 12 crew members was clearly a tremendous tragedy, but the idea that a fully-loaded Boeing 777 could simply vanish like flight 370 did was one that shook people everywhere. It was a stark reminder of just how vast the world can be. Conversations quickly turned to what airlines can do to prevent an occurrence like this from happening ever again.
Enter Canadian company Star Navigation (SNAVF) . Star Navigation systems designs and builds Flat Panel Displays for business, commercial, and military aircraft that provide pilots with a more detailed, comprehensive, and organized window into the functioning of their craft’s vital systems. It is also developing and now fielding systems that can continually record and transmit information real-time via satellite so that an aircraft’s location and health can always be tracked, regardless of its location.
Jean-Louis Larmor, Star Navigation’s Vice President of Corporate Development, talked with equities.com about his company’s important products and how they can make air travel safer.
EQ: Can you tell us a little bit about your product line?
Jean-Louis Larmor: Star Navigation handles two lines of products, both in aerospace and defense. The first is what we call man machine interface, which are LCD displays onboard aircraft, military or civilian. It’s mostly on helicopters, but it is also implemented or applied to military land vehicles or naval ships, for instance.
These displays are usually found in the cockpit. When you board an aircraft and glance in the cockpit, you will see the dashboard with dials or instrumentation or LCD displays. That’s what Star MMI does. We can do the LCD displays, the control panels, and we can do the indicators as well. That line of products is well oiled; it has all the certification. Basically, we are a niche player in a big world for all these kind of platforms and aircraft. We've got all the technical capability from the design to the production, qualification, and support.
We’re in a retrofit market for existing legacy aircrafts or helicopter. If the end user or OEM wants to change a couple of displays in the cockpit, they can go through a big company, but usually it costs. Usually you've got a lot of expenses and a lot of baggage there. We are very flexible, we are fast in designing the new display and providing the new display to the end user.
It’s really a niche market that we are in right now. We've got big names as customers, like Lockheed Martin (LMT) and Northrop Grumman (NOC) . We've also got a British Company for some helicopter applications, and we are also able to see these LCD displays retrofit to the Japanese market. We’re doing some military retrofit in the Japanese fleet, where we are the suppliers of the displays.
That’s today. The lineup for the product itself allows us to maintain or improve our engineering capability. There's aerospace capable products as well, and we’re entering into discussions with big names, as I mentioned.
The second line of products is systems and services. It’s called Star ADS (for Airborne Data Services) and it’s still in its infancy stage right now. It introduces an onboard computer for aircraft which collects all the data about the health or the status of all the various systems in an aircraft independently from the pilot and copilot, there’s no interference there. It then makes a complete report with the information and transmits it by satellite to the ground.
That means that, through the satellite coverage, there’s no area around the globe where an aircraft disappears either from radar or communication capability. We can ensure that this aircraft is continuously connected to the ground center and sending position reports. The recent past has shown that, unfortunately, we collectively were able to lose aircraft over certain regions.
With this system, tracking is immediate. You know continuously where the aircraft is. If the aircraft is absolutely okay, the system only transmits the position. If there are a couple of problems that they are facing in one system or the other, say the fuel consumption starts to be above and beyond the expected parameter, then the system will automatically send that report to the ground crew so that people can start following what the aircraft is doing and how it is performing more accurately.
Later on, that system Star ADS will evolve into really a virtual black box. If an aircraft crashes, people won’t have to wait to recover the black box in order to determine what has happened. If the parameters of the flight have gone completely crazy, the engine stops or there is a fire, a catastrophic failure and the aircraft is losing altitude, the Star ADS system will automatically send and dump all the information it can collect. We know where the aircraft is and we know what is happening in real time.
EQ: Have you seen an uptick in interest in product after the two well-publicized Malaysia Airlines flights that went down?
Jean-Louis Larmor: In fact, the interest started five years ago when Air France 447 disappeared. Very rapidly, the community knew where it crashed into the sea, but what we didn’t know was what had really happened. Everybody lost two and a half years for the recovery of the black boxes, which were at the bottom of the ocean, and had to wait to start imagining the chain of events prior to the crash of the aircraft.
With our system, we would not have prevented the crash, but the system would have detected the air data information of the aircraft as it went wrong. In this case, the autopilot was disrupted and all of a sudden it was losing altitude. The Star ADS system would have dumped all the information immediately, so the Air France (AFLYY) operating center would have received all the information about the facts on the aircraft via satellite as it was happening. It would not have prevented the crash, but it would certainly have spared everyone the two and a half years of waiting and anxiety.
That was when the interested started. Star Navigation was invited by the French BEA, their equivalent of the National Transport Safety Board, to attend and participate in the Air France 447 debriefings. We demonstrated that triggered data transmission by SatCom was a way to follow the aircraft so that it immediately dumps all the information to the necessary people. As a matter of fact, the report from the French BEA mentions Star Navigation and the experiment we conducted with them.
Malaysia Airlines, for instance, has started to show interest in our system. The authorities as well. Star Navigation was invited, not only to attend, but also to actively participate in the various committees which have been formed by the International Commercial Airline Organization (ICAO), the IATA and also ITU. Recently, we presented two of the workshops that we managed at the ITU level in Montreal. These workshops by Star Navigation will be aggregated into a formal recommendation by the international authorities about how to track an aircraft and how to use the data that will be transmitted.
EQ: What should investors be on the lookout for over the next year from Star Navigation?
Jean-Louis Larmor: In addition to all the good works we’ve been doing, we have already got two contracts with small airline operators.
One operator is Skyservice, the most intensive business aircraft operator in Montreal. We have installed the system on one of their aircraft and the go-live, that is to say the point at which the equipment on board is connected by SatCom continuously to the ground operation, will happen this month. We intend to go across their entire fleet; that is our first business aircraft operator. We have got a couple of prospects in the business jet world.
So this month we are going live. From that point on, we know that several business jet network operators will come and see us and see the showcase of Skyservice in Montreal. They are really interested into the benefits of our system applied to the business jet world.
The second thing involves our main market: commercial airliners. We already have a contract with a small airline in Egypt called AlMasria. We are going to implement the equipment onboard an Airbus A320 for AlMasria, and we are going live in the coming three or four months. Once that is done, we've got an operator which is flying an Airbus A320, one of the workhorses of the industry.
So we can demonstrate to some of the key milestones we have reached over the past year. Not only do we have a solid concept, not only do we have solid software, but it's real. It’s certified. It’s already operating on aircraft, and it's going live for both business jets and also commercial airlines.
EQ: Any closing comments?
Jean-Louis Larmor: I have one thing that might be of interest. The Star ADS system I’ve explained that we've already got a system which will go live on business aircraft operators and our target is commercial airlines. We have already an application which we call MEDEVAC. It might sound a little bit of a stretch but if you are transmitting real time data on maintenance of system and a status of electronic system on board an aircraft you can transmit real time status of biomedical information from an emergency helicopter which is transporting an injured person. We have that on the recently opened Research and Development program already looked up and signed for with Quebec and with the Federal Government in Canada. We are going to implement the Star ADS system on board a helicopter or fixed wing EMS aircraft to transmit not only maintenance oriented data but the tracking as well as all the necessary critical parameters for the dispatch center at the hospital in order to orient the helicopter correctly to the closest hospital and to prepare the intervention at the hospital as well. The intent is to save time and sometimes time is really life for the patient.
We already have a level of interest in EMS Transporters in the US and in Europe about that system because basically that will transfer immediately, automatically all the data not by voice but by SatCom to the hospital and the hospital will see exactly the ECG and all the critical parameters live even with the high resolution picture of the patient.