Helicopters Magazine

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Providing Plenty of Latitude

A nondescript building on a side street in Victoria, B.C., is the head office for a small company that is having a huge impact on the aviation world.


October 12, 2012
By Paul Dixon

Topics

A nondescript building on a side street in Victoria, B.C., is the head office for a small company that is having a huge impact on the aviation world.

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Latitude’s devices now have accelerometers built into each box, so if an aircraft suddenly has a rapid descent or has a hard landing, tilts, or goes over and something is wrong in that altitude, it can now transmit a duress type of message. Highland Helicopters is another faithful customer. (Photo courtesy of Highland Helicopters)


 

Latitude Technologies was founded in 2001 by Mark Insley to develop and market TCP/IP-based telematics equipment and services, specifically for location determination and remote management of critical assets. Since its inception, as president and chief engineer, Insley and his company have concentrated on research and development of new Satcom-supported data gathering and reporting systems under the SkyNode and WebSentinel product lines. The products provide operators with the ability to access all elements of latitude flight tracking, two-way communications and flight data management.

When satellite communication systems came into being in the late 1990s, companies such as Iridium and Globalstar offered service at $10 a minute. It seemed like the next best thing until simultaneous rapid expansion of cellular networks provided service for pennies rather than dollars and the Satcom companies were grounded. As Insley saw it at the time, the Satcom companies had missed the boat by concentrating on voice telephony service and overlooking commercial data.

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In 2001, Latitude developed a universal controller box that Insley felt was cutting edge. “We could program it to capture discrete analogue data, even serial data in, have GPS in there – form a message and we could send it based on an event, or more typically, based on a timed schedule. We could then transmit that data out and exploit any wireless network that we wanted to.”

A business was born, and today Latitude provides satellite airtime service packages from Iridium and Inmarsat; data only service, voice only service, or a combination of voice and data service. It’s a boon for operators seeking the utmost in safe communications.

Insley describes Latitude as being “network agnostic,” that is, working with as many satellite and wireless service providers as possible instead of being married to one specific network. The early success of Latitude came from being able to utilize any available wireless network, so if there was a problem – business, political or technical – with any network for any reason, the data could still be moved and the customers wouldn’t suffer.

At about the same time Insley developed his universal controller box, Automatic Flight Following (AFF) was evolving as a concept. AFF is a system that automatically tracks the location and velocity of specially equipped aircraft and other mobile assets, providing this information in near real time to dispatchers, aviation managers and other authorized users. The equipment includes geolocation and data communications devices that use satellite-based technology.

As the first standards were initially developed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Latitude was the only vendor capable of meeting those standards. This led the USFS to rewrite the specifications to allow more vendors to compete and as such, the first-generation AFF, simply following a dot on a map, was born.

Aerial firefighting has been a key driver in the development of Latitude products. At the time, Canadian operators looking to operate in the U.S raised the question of displaying telemetry for tank data. As a result, out came the Latitude Air Tanker Information System. Insley notes that, “with the Satcom system and tracking system on board an aircraft, we could measure the tanks, measure volume and measure it as it changed. We could tell if it was retardant, foam or gel – what was being dropped, where it was being dropped and how it was being dropped.” It started as a one-off product for one operator, but has evolved across the large fleet air tankers, he says.

In 2010, Latitude was recognized by the Province of Ontario for its contribution to the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources’ (OMNR) Firehawk program during the 2009 and 2010 fire seasons. Using Latitude’s Messenger and SkyNode Satcom system, aerial fire officers were able to create and send detailed reports directly from their aircraft during missions, bypassing any potential radio congestion on existing ground-based systems. Installed on tablets, laptops or PDAs, the Messenger interface permits two-way text messaging and data file transfers.

For OMNR Firehawk, this enabled the aerial fire officers to transmit digital file information that could be incorporated directly into the provincial GIS database to build maps and reports that could provide managers with the absolute best information to make strategic decisions. Historically, a spotter in a tower or an aircraft would relay information via radio to a local fire centre. The report would then be created and forwarded to the provincial centre, a process that could take a couple of hours at best and often much longer. Today, that information is being received by the decision makers in real time. Another benefit to the real-time transmission of data is that by removing the human element from the relay of information, errors of omission and transposition of numbers have been eliminated.

A Worthwhile Partnership
In 2010, Latitude entered into an agreement with SEI Industries to provide real-time sensor gathering, satellite relay and information display technologies for the entire Bambi Bucket product line. Of critical importance for SEI was the need to carefully monitor all data relating to the process of “drop tracking” – the elements involved in fighting fires from the sky. Insley notes that there is a lot of misunderstanding about what drop tracking actually means.

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Latitude systems can be found on Griffon helicopters. (Photo Courtesy of DND)


 

“A lot of people think it is just a matter of noting when the drop started and when the drop ended and that’s drop tracking,” he says. “In reality, there are a lot of things that can be considered and the amount of fuel is critical. As fuel goes down, payload goes up. Other things to consider are whether it’s long line or short line, stationary – there are lots and lots of variables.”

Shawn Bethel, SEI’s firefighting manager, says that the collaboration with Latitude over the past two years has developed an increased understanding within the industry – as well as by agency fire managers – about the benefits of using enabling technologies. The information generating from these technologies to validate or modify existing methods of fire fighting is now more readily available and is proving to be invaluable.

A serendipitous moment for Insley with the air tanker program was the realization that the basic system he created was capable of capturing much more information than was actually being used. It was like having the answer to a problem before the problem had actually been defined. That came out of a series of conversations and discussions across the industry, especially the rotary-wing community.

One particular question that cropped up often within the industry was when is a safe landing really a safe landing? It sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it is a valid proposition. At the time, Latitude was recording information about little more than takeoffs and landings. There is a “mayday” button on the console, but as one operator pointed out, if there truly is an emergency, the pilot will be too busy flying the aircraft to be thinking about pushing that button. Insley says that simply measuring takeoffs and landings involves using different heuristics, speed-based attributes, collective and other control surfaces just to understand if an aircraft is lifting off or has landed.

Now, to answering the question of whether or not a landing was actually a crash involves more complex algorithms, which have to be tuned for the specific aircraft and that aircraft’s operating environment. Latitude’s devices now have accelerometers built into each box, so if an aircraft suddenly has a rapid descent or has a hard landing, tilts, or goes over and something is wrong in that altitude, it can now transmit a duress type of message. It’s not yet a mayday, but an event that has been triggered by a predetermined value. The event is sent back to a dispatcher in an office or even to a mobile phone. The response or lack of response to that event determines whether or not it is a mayday situation.

But there’s more. Insley soon realized they could also measure strain gauges and engine parameters, things that would be of interest to maintenance personnel. Then, there was the ability to measure flight surfaces and flight characteristics for exceedences such as bank, angle and over-speed. These variables tie in directly with what the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST) has developed by defining as thresholds. Now, when thresholds are reached, event notifications can be sent to maintenance.

Developing New Technologies
Creating better products is an important goal at Latitude and Insley points to how IONode, the company’s new on board flight data and operational loads management device, can help in that regard. Initially developed for air tanker operations, it now has two models that are almost exclusively aimed at Flight Operational Quality Assurance applications (FOQA) and/or maintenance-related operations.

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Talon's Peter Murray has installed Latitude systems on all of his aircraft.
(Photo by Matt Nicholls)


 

“The next-generation USFS air tanker standards are asking for the same attributes, measuring the strain on the aircraft and providing real-time feedback,” he says. “The point is, and what I think that all the industry has discovered, and it doesn’t matter who leads it, whether it’s forestry or oil and gas, it’s the push for safety. That and the need for daily reporting.”

Insley sees Latitude as a technology partner with its customers. “They need information that is relevant and timely to allow them to make the best decisions,” he says. “In firefighting we can distribute information simultaneously to a number of people who have different responsibilities – forestry, the fire science guys, aerial dispatch, the fire boss on the ground and even to the bean counters – so they can see that assets are being used efficiently. Safety does not have to cost extra.”

For smaller operators, the amount of information that can be downloaded from even a straightforward flight can be overwhelming, like trying to drink from a fire hose. Instead of trying to wade through thousands of lines of information, the ability to deliver relevant information to the people who actually need that information in a timely manner is a powerful tool. Insight comes from working with a fixed-wing fleet operator that flies scheduled and charter service across Western Canada.

Insley describes the amount of information collected on the IONode as “massive.” Beyond the data used for dispatch and scheduling purposes, the IONode takes all the information off the Flight Data Acquisition Unit, all the control surfaces and cockpit instrumentation, as well as all the acceleration vectors, heading aspects, tilt, bank and roll, as well as GPS. “So then, this box communicates with our Satcom box so if we ever see an exceedence or a threshold that is defined by our customer based on the variables they determine, we can relay that in real time,” he says. “Five to 20 seconds later, a stakeholder can know that something, some attribute they are interested in has happened. Most of that data is more practically relayed and put into their flight analysis system. You take the human out of the equation: the aircraft is doing what it is doing and only when there is some triggering event do you notify someone.”

Supporting the Home Team
Latitude’s products are manufactured and assembled in their own facility in Victoria, B.C., though Insley notes that at busy times, he will subcontract work out. It’s a source of pride that Latitude’s products are the most reasonably priced in the industry. “You can buy one of our full-featured Satcom tracking boxes for less than $5,000,” Insley says. “It’s probably the lightest and least expensive aeronautical approved product in the world. The most expensive we have is still under $10,000, so compare that to the competition. If you start with that $5,000 box, you can upgrade it anytime in its lifetime. You can turn it into a top-of-the-line box and all we charge is whatever the list price difference is. So, a company can start small and grow the technology. In this economy, there are operators out there that do multiple missions, and having a flexible unit technology that allows them to do multiple missions is important. It may be seasonable, they could be doing agriculture, fighting fires: this is so functional it allows them to specify the mission requirements.”

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Latitude has worked with Vancouver’s Talon Helicopters for some time. Other clients include SEI Industries, Ornge and Highland Helicopters.
(Photo by Matt Nicholls)


 

The basic SkyNode S-100 product has been Latitude’s mainstay. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has bought roughly 130 of them over the years for their fleet of aircraft that operate in some of the most hostile environments in the world. When the DEA loses an aircraft, they tell Insley the one thing they try to salvage and recycle from the wreck is the S-100. He says they tell him, “We’d buy more, but they don’t break.” Currently, there are more than 2,000 S-100 and S-200 SkyNode units in service, including 90 S-200s on the Canadian Forces’ fleet of 90 CH-146 Griffon helicopters. From the jungles of South America to the high Arctic, SkyNode has passed the test. Other key Canadian clients include Highland Helicopters, Ornge and North Cariboo Air.

In 2008, when Scott Kasprowicz and Steve Sheik flew their AgustaWestland 109 around the world in record time, they did so with a SkyNode S-200 that tracked their every moment. Insley says it was the first time the National Aeronautical Association had ever utilized a Satcom flight following system. Previously, it would have been timed from tower to tower with certified people. This time, they taped up the box and this was the basis for verifying the record. At times, they had concerns with icing and fuel concerns with long flights over water into headwinds. But they had flight following, voice communications and data, so there was peace of mind.

Peter Murray, president and operations manager of Vancouver-based Talon Helicopters is a big fan of Latitude Technology and uses their products on all of his aircraft. “I’ve been in the helicopter business for more than 30 years, and in the early days there was no way of knowing where anyone was if they didn’t show up where they were expected to be,” Murray says. “We were looking at systems for a long time and even tried one system that had been designed for trucking companies. We’ve always had a great relationship with Mark and Latitude. They are responsive to any problems and they just keep improving their products. We don’t fly without them.”

Murray says the worst part of having an aircraft that is overdue or unaccounted for is the not knowing, but with the Latitude system, “I can follow everything from my iPhone and I can text message in real time from my iPhone to any of our aircraft.”

Insley is guided by the principle that “we’re here for the people who are going out and flying every day. It’s routine until something doesn’t go right. That’s the important part of what we do.”


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