Whether for safety, economy or to meet ICAO Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA) standards, helicopter operators are showing increased interest in capturing and analyzing flight data. Spidertracks (Booth No. 4854), based in Palmerstown North, New Zealand, offers a global satellite-based system for fleet operators that tracks equipped aircraft in real time and records movements and flight data for later analysis. A simple, low-cost system, Spidertracks consists of an onboard “spider” unit and an Internet-based client interface for accessing data.
“We have a number of fleet operators using the system to manage their aircraft efficiently in real time, and they’re also purchasing it for safety,” said Rachel Donald, who handles the North American market for Spidertracks from the company’s Boulder, Colo. office. “We have found a niche with tourism operators, flight schools and various organizations with contracts with government agencies.”
The “spider” unit uploads the vehicle’s GPS coordinates, speed, direction and altitude via the Iridium satellite system at customer-selected intervals of distance or time (as frequently as one update per minute). The data “translates into a breadcrumb trail, which clients see in real time over the Internet,” according to Donald. “The operations manager can see where all the aircraft are on one screen.” If the unit fails to update for two consecutive reporting intervals, an SOS alert is sent to designated message recipients. The data is stored on a secure server maintained by Spidertracks. Flight and tracking data can be accessed via any authorized computer with broadband Internet access. Flight tracks are displayed on Google Maps and can be superimposed on customized maps supplied by customers. Raw tracking data can also be delivered in table format. Spidertracks, founded in 2007, has more than 1,000 clients in 50 countries.
Donald noted that many current tracking systems use cellphone networks to upload data, adding to cost of operation and rendering them incapable of continuous tracking due to limitations in cellphone coverage. Current satellite-based systems typically require satellite phones, which adds to buy-in and operating costs.
Spidertracks offers two models: the S2 ($995) and more robust Bluetooth-enabled S3 ($1,795). The “spider” units weigh 10.5 ounces, require no external antennas and are affixed inside the vehicle using adhesives, eliminating installation costs. Power is supplied from the vehicle’s electrical system. An optional plug in keyboard allows sending of pre-programmed text messages. Donald estimates the operational cost for a fleet helicopter operating 100 hours per year is between 60 cents and $2 per hour, based on the reporting interval selected.
In addition to enhancing efficiency and safety, tracking systems can also reduce operating costs because flight crews are more likely to hew to mission objectives at all times. “Pilots tend to start behaving better because they know someone can see what they’re up to,” said Donald. “We hear back anecdotally from customers that they notice a change in attitude that occurs.”