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December 23, 2013

Aviation startup markets recording device for small airports

PHOTo / Amber Waterman Ron Cote, left, and John Guimond, have developed a device to improve safety at smaller airports by capturing and saving radio communications transmitted by pilots and airport personnel. Less than a year on the market, the device is in use at 13 airports.

When it comes to flying planes, the rules are pretty cut and dried. They clearly weren't observed when, this summer, a pilot took off from a New Mexico taxiway, the narrow strip of pavement connecting airport runways.

“There are quite a few different no-nos on that,” says Robert Uecker, the airport manager for the city of Belén, N.M.

Uecker is one of the first customers of Invisible Intelligence LLC, a Maine company producing a patent-pending computer system for smaller airports that records otherwise fleeting radio transmissions. The company's system uses the recordings to calculate traffic statistics and provide a firsthand account of events for airport managers who are trying to reconstruct them. It's also used to train staff to prevent the relatively rare cases when operations don't go as they should.

It was just a week after getting an Invisible Intelligence trial unit in his office that the New Mexico airport manager put the device to use. He sent captured radio transmissions from two pilots who observed the errant taxiway flier to the Federal Aviation Administration.

“It was useful knowing that I had some evidence right there, instead of [relying on] he-said she-said,” says Uecker.

Sophisticated record-keeping is typically beyond the scope and budget of an airport like Belén's, where Uecker is the only employee. There, and at the nearly 5,200 other public general aviation airports in the country, pilots are most often guided not by a fleet of air traffic controllers but by FAA protocol that mandates pilots communicate their intended maneuvers over a common radio frequency. Depending on the hour, those communications may play to an empty room, after airport staff have gone home.

Those smaller airports in the United States and abroad are Invisible Intelligence's primary market, and one with which its founders are familiar.

John Guimond is the airport manager at the municipal Augusta State Airport and Ron Cote is an electrical supervisor for the Maine Department of Transportation, a job in which he has managed runway lighting at municipal airports for more than a decade. (The duo says they have their employers' blessings on their venture, on which they work off hours.)

It's their combined aviation knowledge, buy-in from Maine's DOT and the quick delivery to market of a product that was just a notion a year ago that gives them confidence they'll find ready customers among airport managers like Uecker. After launching the recorder system earlier this year, Maine's DOT announced it is developing a program to cover up to half the cost of the system for any of the 42 public airports in the state. The systems cost from $2,000 to $3,500, depending on the exact setup and platform. So far, 10 Maine airports are using it.

Overall, Cote and Guimond say they expect to generate $35,000 in gross sales this year, a figure that represents about six months of sales from around the country, mostly generated by word-of-mouth and a write-up in an industry email newsletter.

While the duo is still operating the business out of their homes (and Damon's Pizza & Italians in Augusta), their flagship General Audio Recording Device, or G.A.R.D., is recording radio transmissions at 13 airports and a heliport in four states. An installation in New Hampshire, a fifth state, was pending at press time.

Tapping an aviation metaphor, Cote says launching the company was a lot like building a plane in-flight, an approach that has worked so far.

“A lot of people will design something and wait till they perfect it,” Cote says. “We did just the opposite and put it out there and asked how to improve it... it's kind of been designed by airport managers.”

The next phase of the company's development will be fueled by a $25,000 grant from the Maine Technology Institute that Cote says will allow the company to deploy more advanced voice recognition software into its product and hire two contract employees to take on sales and administrative tasks.

The first unit Guimond and Cote installed began recording audio in February at the Knox County Regional Airport in Owls Head, near Rockland. They intentionally picked that location.

“The idea started after the terrible airplane accident in Rockland last year,” Cote says.

Three young men died after their Cessna 172 collided during takeoff with a pickup truck driven by an employee of Penobscot Island Air. A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board stated the driver of the vehicle had announced plans to cross the runway over the radio and heard no response. “We'll never really know [what happened],” Cote says.

Guimond didn't understand why more information couldn't be available, and familiar with Cote's electronics expertise, he asked to meet and made his pitch to develop a recording device that would enhance airport safety.

After about 10 days tinkering and coding at his camp in Eustis, Cote had built and developed a basic prototype that could capture individual radio transmissions — cutting out dead air — and store the digital files with timestamps down to the second. The next step was contracting the Winthrop-based Alternative Manufacturing Inc. to build the small black box that links a unicom radio to a computer.

In a written testimonial about the company's system, Knox County Regional Airport Manager Jeffrey Northgraves says he began researching ways to record radio transmissions after the accident. Most options on the market, Northgraves wrote, have features beyond what his airport needed and are expensive. He expects other airport managers will find the device useful.

According to the latest annual report by the General Aviation Manufacturers Association and FAA statistics, there were 1,422 general aviation accidents in the United States in 2012, 270 of which resulted in the death of one or more passengers. Representatives from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, contacted by Mainebiz, reviewed the company's website but said they could not comment on market demand for such a system.

Since the first deployment of the G.A.R.D. system at the Knox airport, Cote says he's continued to work on new features at the request of customers. That led to the first major upgrade earlier this year, enabling the program to tally airport traffic and maintenance operations.

Federal regulations require pilots to make a number of transmissions as they're taking off or landing, and Cote says his software can single out those events by analyzing characteristics of the unicom radio transmissions. That development represents half of the company's pending patent, which Cote says covers the combined functions of recording radio transmissions and logging a count and timeline of airport operations to enhance the planning abilities for airport managers.

At the Augusta airport, Guimond said the traffic data showed an unexpected lull on the weekends. Airport staff had previously performed only routine maintenance operations on weekends, but knowing that weekends are actually less busy has caused them to change that practice.

Cote and Guimond say that technology will give airport managers a better way to track airport traffic, which is not done uniformly, and to allow after-hours logging of traffic data.

“We've talked to five different [airport] managers and they had five different answers about where they got their numbers,” Cote says.

Next steps

Now that it has an MTI seed grant, Cote says the next step for the G.A.R.D. system is to rebuild the software in a new programming language that can more efficiently incorporate voice recognition.

That, the duo hopes, will allow them to extract even more information from radio transmissions, like how frequently a specific runway is used, what types of planes are landing at the airport and other basic information. Cote expects development of that software to take around eight months. 

The grant has paid for some patent attorney services and supported two year-long contracts with an administrative assistant and a full-time salesperson whose first task was contacting every state transportation department in the country. The company is also bringing on an intern from the University of Maine at Orono to help develop the software for Google's Android and Apple's iOS platforms.

It's the latest in a pattern of quick development for the young company.

“We went from concept to prototype in 12 days and then to market in less than six months,” Cote says.

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