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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Metro Buys Outerlink, Develops IRIS SatCom

By Joseph Ambrogne, Technical Editor

Mike Stanberry.
Just three months into 2015, the commercial rotorcraft industry has already seen a revolution in satellite communication systems. Bristow’s search and rescue (SAR) flight crews in the UK use simultaneous voice channels and transmit uninterrupted Wi-Fi data thanks to Iridium Communications’ OpenPort service. Appareo Systems has partnered with Iridium to offer satellite-based telematics for general aviation.

Now, with its recent acquisition of Outerlink Global Solutions, Metro Aviation will raise the bar again by offering IRIS—a full-duplex communications service previously unheard of outside of the military, combined with the rotorcraft industry’s first satellite-transmitted, real-time flight data management (FDM) system—in what Metro founder Mike Stanberry describes as “a total solution to safety and management oversight.”

The IRIS system is, in one sense, Metro’s culminating step in what has been a years-long, incremental process to improve helicopter operational safety. The company first installed the Outerlink Voice & Video Recorder (OVVR) in 2008 to track onboard communications, followed a year later by the Multifunction Data Acquisition Unit (MFDAU) for airframe and engine data. Later, Metro added a Quick Access Recorder (QAR) to collect the various data on two removable SD cards. In 2010, Metro formed North Flight Data Systems (NFDS) to refine the products and create flight analysis software. In 2014, Metro acquired Outerlink to offer a complete system of hardware and satcom/tracking capability, and merged North Flight Data Systems with Outerlink.

Through Outerlink’s cooperation with ViaSat, IRIS adds another layer of safety to air operations—reliable satellite communications service for pilots. Though satellite phones have been around for years, previous technology has not been without its drawbacks.

“You’ve got to be careful when you’re talking, or you’ll step on each other, and you’ve got to say over, and wait for a second to let that clear to the person on the other side,” says Stanberry. “It’s just awkward communication.” Plus, he adds, “You’ve got to have the antenna pointing at just the right angle or you’ll lose communication.”

With ViaSat technology, IRIS gives pilots a push-to-talk, full-duplex system—the ability to have simultaneous back-and-forth conversations unimpeded by signal delays, which is fittingly what modern aviators are already used to doing on their VHF radios. ViaSat technology also enables IRIS to transmit through the blades, enabling a good connection at virtually any angle and resolving many satellite challenges of the past.

The IRIS system also gives air operators the ability to transmit electronic data bi-directionally via an always-on, IP, satellite connection, allowing for near-continuous position reports to ground controllers.

Outerlink’s IRIS product sheet, diagramming how the various components interact. Image courtesy of Metro Aviation

With most technology, flight tracking is in minute increments. IRIS will allow the aircraft to send tracking reports every 10 seconds, backfilled every second. Those frequent updates let operators, and anyone else chosen to receive the data, know where an equipped aircraft is every second it is in flight. But flight tracking takes up a relatively small amount of IRIS’s available bandwidth.

“If you can visualize that the data bucket is only 10 to 20 percent full, there is another 80 to 90 percent availability to send other information with that position report,” says Stanberry. “And what we’ve been able to do is package up labels that people would like to see from the aircraft; performance data, for instance; pitch, roll and yaw.”

This has monumental implications for aviation safety. To benefit from most FDM systems, air operators have traditionally had to wait until the aircraft landed to collect flight data—essentially removing a storage device from the onboard recorder. The data certainly helps improve future flights, but it does little to protect the aircraft and its occupants while they are flying a mission, and it requires that the FDM recorder make it back in one piece. By transmitting data in near real-time to ground support staff, IRIS turns an FDM system into an accident prevention tool. “Getting that information live as it happens, and being able to push-to-talk and communicate with the pilot about what’s going on is invaluable,” says Stanberry.

For example, if an engine oil warning light comes on in the helicopter, the IRIS system can be configured to stream all labels related to engine performance directly to a computer display on the ground. If engine failure is predicted, the pilot can be notified in time to land safely.

Any data that can be collected from onboard FDM systems can be transmitted electronically, and operators are free to select which labels to receive, from traditional FDM data points such as GPS coordinates, airspeed, altitude and direction; or mechanical data such as engine temperature and rotor RPM. And much like the aforementioned Iridium OpenPort service being developed for Bristow, IRIS allows flight crews to transmit mission-specific data like vital signs for a critical care patient. The only real limiting factor is cost.

“We are collecting something like 260 or 270 different flight labels,” says Stanberry. “We can send all that down, but that would be pretty expensive. So you pick what you want.”

Metro has been approaching select operators who share its priority on operational safety, and many have signed up to equip their entire fleets. The launch customer is PHI, which is helping with the development of the IRIS system. Air Medical Group Holdings is also on board and helping to define air medical usage. Both companies, along with Metro Aviation, will equip their entire fleet when IRIS becomes available later this year. But Stanberry believes Outerlink’s service will benefit operators from a wide range of mission profiles.

Stanberry gives two examples. The first is how operators can manage entire fleets in flight with a single message: “Let’s say I’m an offshore operator and I’ve got some weather that’s moving into a quadrant out in the Gulf of Mexico or in the North Sea, and I’ve got 10 to 20 aircraft flying out there, and now I’ve got a try to reach each one of those aircraft and warn them of something or just communicate something to them. With this system, because all the client’s aircraft are on the system, I can designate in the operational control center one message that goes out to all of those aircraft at one time. Incidentally, I’m only charged like you sent one message instead of 20.”

Another scenario he provides is a medical transport helicopter contacting a remote medical expert: “Let’s say there is a neurosurgeon or cardiologist—he’s the main guru at a particular hospital or aeromedical program, and unfortunately when this particular flight happens, he’s not at the hospital. We can send this very same information to his cell phone, no matter where he is. He in turn can call the helicopter on his cell phone if he wants to. It’s pretty unbelievable what we’re going to be able to accomplish.”

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