Finding the Right Solution

Solara-Global’s GPS Helps Helicopters Bring ’Em Home
Bill Zuk
March 05, 2014
By Bill Zuk
Tom Tessier appears to be the very antithesis of an inventor, looking nothing like the public perception of the mad scientist. He is down-to-earth, warm and friendly as he describes the invention that is the cornerstone of his company’s product line – a tracking device that is finding favour in aerospace industry mounting on everything from spacecraft to helicopters.

Manitoba’s Custom Helicopters  
Manitoba’s Custom Helicopters was one of the first aerospace companies to adopt Solara Trackers.
(Photo courtesy of Custom Helicopters)


 
The latest Solara 2000 Tracker series has found a home in helicopters in remote operations where direct communication is essential in providing automatic GPS (global positioning system) tracking, two-way messaging at a fixed price from a central monitoring station, monitoring of single to multiple users on a Web map and, first and foremost, maintaining a secure and continuous link to a home base. “You want people to be safe, that goes without saying,” says Tessier.

At first glance, the latest Solara Field Tracker 2100 looks like the overgrown “brick” mobile phone that first appeared in the 1980s, yet it is still small and light enough to be a handheld unit. The shell is either a bright yellow in civil versions or a matte black in other applications. Composed of thick poly-carbonite that has already withstood drop tests over four feet onto concrete (able to withstand +50G impacts) and has been virtually indestructible. A recent test of a Solara Tracker mounted in a cradle, continued to operate at over 70G. The case is built at E.H. Price in Winnipeg.

It is also shock- and vibration-proof (meeting MIL-STD-810G certification for shock and vibration), water-resistant up to three-foot depths for 30 minutes with an IP68 cap, able to operate from -50 to +50 C in a rugged, sealed compartment that need only be sent back to Solara for battery replacements. Nickel-metal hydride battery life, depending on the setup of the device, can last days on a single charge.

The Tracker connects through a helical antenna at the top of the unit, to a communications satellite in the Iridium Communications Inc. constellation of 66 satellites. Working with Iridium, in business since 2000, ensures that Solara can provide service 24/7 with enough backup capacity to never leave a user without service. The Iridium satellites deployed in an orbital pattern passing over the North and South poles provide continuous global coverage and have a built-in redundancy capacity to cover any negative event.

Tracker-in-Helicopter-cradle  
Solara Trackers are used worldwide in many applications from security at the 2010 Olympics to snow grading, mining and prospecting, marine, and even in space vehicles.
(Photo by Bill Zuk)


 
Trackers can be purchased with a variety of peripherals including software customized to such users needs as data packet size, an AC/ DC charge adapter, a 100V to 240V universal adapter, a foldable solar panel for use in areas where there is no external power and mounting equipment – all packed in a travelling hardcase that can float. Customers can optimize use, as in battery-operation by an individual on foot or the unit can be plugged into the 12- or 24-volt system of a cockpit as non-STD portable equipment. The Solara Trackers can send locations in as little as every 20 seconds, serving as emergency beacon. With two-way text, with the future potential of being directed through a phone line, communication can be maintained in a variety of circumstances.

The origins of the Solara Trackers go back to the 1990s, when engineer Tessier, as manager of computer applications at Akjuit Aerospace Inc. (SpacePort Canada), was based in Churchill, Man. Launching rockets over frozen tundra had led to an environmental concern and the need to recover the debris of the shattered rockets; Tessier had to come up with a unique solution.

Knowing that local trappers and hunters had developed an ability to live off the land, following herds of caribou for hundreds of miles inland, he contacted Inuit hunters from Nunavut who would retrieve the rocket components. Tracking the individuals out on the ice, however, necessitated a search-and-rescue (SAR) tracking device that would work in one of the world’s harshest and most unpredictable environments, and nothing seemed to be up for the job. After struggling with contemporary data and communications devices that were largely cumbersome and unreliable, one of his Inuit friends simply made it a challenge: “Look, you’re the engineer from the south. Why don’t you come up with something that works?”

With that, Tessier began an odyssey to develop a tracking device that would make it possible to live and work in remote and isolated parts of the world. His next role as a space communications and satellite system designer with Bristol Aerospace led to work in 2004 on a satellite-ground receiver that was portable enough to go into small tracked vehicles. Field tests in northern latitudes produced enough data to encourage him that he was on the right path. Other projects included a stint with the European Space Agency and involvement in the launch of the SCISAT-1 in 2003. Later, as the president of an aerospace consulting firm, he assisted programs at the University of California (Berkeley) and provided support and training to companies and agencies working with the Canadian Space Agency. Throughout this period, Tessier continued to work on a SAR-SAT tracking device.

After Tessier founded Solara Remote Data Delivery Inc. in 2006, he began to look for clients. At that point, still in the development and proving stages for new prototypes, he was approached by Jim Hawes, the founder and president of Custom Helicopters, based in St. Andrew’s Airport, on the outskirts of Winnipeg, whose far-flung operations led to a second base in Thompson, Man. In a recent interview, Tessier recalled that Hawes “was a mentor whose advice and support” came at a time when the tracker that he was working on was being readied for production. Hawes saw Tessier as a “hometown boy who was not only an innovative engineer with an intriguing product, but someone who could help make helicopter operations safe for everyone who flies up north.”

Tom-Tessier  
Hardly the mad scientist type, Tom Tessier has invented a GPS product that is both highly versatile and is an invaluable mission tool. (Photo by Bill Zuk)

 
Tessier has described the design process that his products have undergone as a “learning exercise.” He says, “You have to make it intuitive because people just want to pick it up and go with it, not read a manual. Every single thing on here is a design decision; even the screws are stainless steel to make sure that they don’t corrode. The silicon adhesive to seal the unit means that the units are returned and exchanged when batteries need servicing. Batteries have been known to explode. We chose the batteries specifically that would not only have the greatest performance but offer the safest operation.”

Hawes had laid out some of the specifications that he required for a tracking device: mobility, battery-operation, burst or intermittent signaling, GPS location finding, one or two-way communication capability and velocity readings. The company’s first product, the Solara Tracker 1000 was adopted for use in polar communication with a select group of clients including mining and exploration companies as well as the military. It would turn out to be the world’s first automatic GPS tracking and text-messaging device.

With the initial specifications that were laid out by prospective customers like Hawes, Tessier knew that he could produce a tracking device that not only met the stringent requirements of SAR/SAT equipment but that also could be unique in the field of data communications, an economical, study and reliable unit that could go anywhere.

Trackers are now found  
Trackers are now found in all of the Custom fleet and bring a
heightened safety level, necessary when the fleet is far from home.
(Photo courtesy of Custom Helicopters)

 
One of the first aerospace clients to adopt the Solara Trackers was Custom Helicopters. Trackers are now found in all of the Custom fleet, and according to Brian Dawes, the current president and CEO of the company, taking over after his dad’s recent death, the tracking devices “continue to provide an element of safety to operations that are often far from home.”

Starting from a small, one-person operation, Solara is now headquartered in the National Research Council building in Winnipeg in a compact but efficient two-office location, where data and communication tracking, servicing, and research and development is carried out. Sales are made globally through the main office and a network of select dealers across North America and beyond (Australia is the latest dealer location) to a wide range of clients.

Trackers are in use worldwide including at a station in Antarctica and in many applications, among them security at the 2010 Olympics, snow grading, mining and prospecting, marine, and even use in space vehicles.

One of the selling points of the Solara Trackers is the flexibility of design, which allows for customizing of individual units. The degree of flexibility Solara offers allows for “an almost endless number of options and possibilities,” Tessier says. For example, since a heavy case is not required for South American use, a miniaturized Tracker has been developed for that market.

Tessier continues to upgrade and develop new features for the Trackers, making use of the Assent Works in Winnipeg, a private, non-profit “inventor’s studio” where industry and educational leaders have provided a workspace for engineers, designers, architects, artisans and artists to create new products. Tessier is one of the active participants who can be found at the CAD and 3D equipment with his latest prototype of the Solara Tracker.

Who says an engineer from the south can’t produce a tool that all northerners can truly appreciate?


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