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Star Navigation Reports Aircraft Anomalies Before They Become Problems

In flight safety, the rule of thumb is simple


September 28, 2007
By James Careless

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In flight safety, the rule of thumb is simple: The sooner operational
problems are identified and dealt with, the better the chances for a
safe landing. This is why an onboard flight system that immediately
alerts ground-based engineers when components start exceeding their
operating parameters makes such good sense. By identifying and
responding to anomalies early, operational problems can be tackled
before they threaten the safety of passengers, flight crew and aircraft.

This
is the thinking behind ISMS, the Inflight Safety Monitoring System made
by Star Navigation Systems Group of Toronto. Consisting of a small
avionics box and software that connects to the aircraft’s black box
data feed plus 14 other user-specified devices, the ISMS’s mission is
to report anomalies as they happen. The reports are compiled into fault
reports that are transmitted over the aircraft’s communications system
– VHF radio or satellite – to the aircraft operator’s corporate
computer system. From here, designated engineers are alerted about the
anomalies by SMS message, page, phone, and/or e-mail. They can then log
onto the operator’s LAN to see what’s happening on the flight, and
decide what should be done about it.

“Let’s say I’m the
operations manager responsible for a certain flight, and I happen to be
in Singapore attending a conference,” says Viraf Kapadia, Star
Navigation’s chairman and CEO. “No problem; where I am on the planet, I
can be reached by phone, email, page, or SMS message. As soon as I
receive the alert, I can go |to any Web-connected computer and log onto
my password-protected ISMS database. I can see what’s happening on the
aircraft; alert other experts for immediate consultations if necessary,
and advise Operations as to whether the flight should land now or
continue on to its original destination. Once the aircraft arrives, a
ground crew can be ready and waiting to service the aircraft
immediately; thus minimizing AOG delays.”

Basically, ISMS is an
early warning system; one that calls for help before things can go
seriously wrong. A case in point: Imagine you’re flying over the ocean
when a red light on the panel indicates an overheating engine. All you
can do at this point is either shut the engine down or risk a fire.

Contrast
this dilemma with the ISMS box sensing the engine temperature starting
to rise above normal parameters and alerting ground engineers to this
trend, long before the red zone has been breached. Both the ground and
the pilot get time to analyze the trend before the engine shutdown/
fire risk decision has to be made. There may even be enough time to try
lowering engine temperature by throttling the engine back; an option
that may cause the flight to arrive late, but still intact and at
destination.

“A second scenario where ISMS can make a difference
is when a single bird hits a turbine engine’s fan during takeoff,”
Kapadia says. “With existing monitoring technology, such strikes
usually go undetected. The damaged turbine blades stay in service
creating a risk of an in-flight failure later on, followed by an
expensive engine overhaul down the road. In contrast, ISMS would note
the single spike in system performance caused by the strike. Even if it
were not enough to warrant an alert, ISMS would note the spike in its
regular end-of-flight report. This report would alert ground crew to
inspect the engine, giving them the chance to make a minor repair now
instead of a costly overhaul later.”

The end-of-flight report’s
parameters can be customized by the operator. This means that they can
not only monitor overall aircraft performance, but also keep an eye on
how the aircraft is being flown by different pilots.

This
flexibility can be particularly helpful for aircraft leasing firms,
Kapadia notes. “Using ISMS, leasing companies can keep a close eye on
the performance of their leased aircraft without having to send
inspectors to do on-site checks,” he says. “When a recurring problem
arises, they can inspect the data to see if it is occurring when a
specific pilot is flying the aircraft. As well, performance anomalies
can alert leasing companies to inadequate aircraft maintenance long
before their property is irreparably damaged.”

Taken a step
further, ISMS data could be used by responsible operators to negotiate
discounts with their insurance brokers, Kapadia says. “If you can prove
that your planes are more reliable than the industry standard, then
underwriters are bound to take notice. Imagine: A 10% discount on a
single aircraft’s $2.5 million premium could save you $250,000
annually. This would cover the cost of installing an ISMS after the
first year!”

Clearly, the ISMS concept makes good sense. This is
why India’s SpiceJet Airways is equipping its fleet of Boeing 737-800s
with ISMS, and is paying Star Navigation $9 million to do the job.
Originally, the project was to be completed in 36-42 months, but
SpiceJet recently asked Star Navigation to get it done within two
years. Kapadia is happy to accelerate the ISMS installation, because
“we see it as a very clear indication of the traction and continued
momentum we are experiencing.”

Still, it remains to be seen if
other operators will pay $240,000 per plane for ISMS-style preventive
monitoring. If farsightedness and reason dictate their buying patterns,
they will. But if they find themselves cash-strapped and fighting to
survive into next week, they won’t.