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Monday, August 1, 2005

Tuned In

Douglas W. Nelms

Altair Avionics is increasing its engine monitoring capabilities to improve maintenance procedures while reducing costs.

IN 2002, PRATT & WHITNEY CANADA PURCHASED Altair Avionics, an engine monitoring and diagnostic company based in Norwood, Conn., as part of PWC's Service Centre Network strategic program to improve customer satisfaction. Since then, Altair has expanded its base to include new products for both PWC and other engine OEMs, despite being an independent subsidiary of the Canadian company.

"There is no agreement between Altair and Pratt & Whitney regarding (our products) going onto other engines," said Douglas Thompson, general manager for Altair Avionics. "The thinking is that the more engines that we have the ability to interface with, the more we can learn and the smarter we're going to be in the field."

And interfacing with engines is exactly what Altair does. It currently has two specific engine monitoring programs that, in turn, interact with other programs to act as a force multiplier for engine maintenance and inspections.

The two basic systems are IntelliStart+ and SmartCycle+, both of which provide engine and airframe monitoring, watching for anomaly trends and exceedence events, as well as acting as a cycle counter. The primary difference between the two is that IntelliStart is active during start-up to prevent over-temping the engine, using a solenoid fuel value that helps modulate the start. It then goes into the passive monitoring mode once start-up is completed. SmartCycle provides only passive monitoring of the engine.

Supporting these programs is Altair's Data Transmission Unit (DTU) that provides automatic wireless transmission of data from the aircraft while in-flight directly to the Turbine Tracker system, an Internet-based data management system.

The Altair system is actually a four-component process, Thompson said. The first is the IntelliStart and SmartCycle engine monitoring programs that acquire the data. That is followed by the retrieval segment that is either the DTU or a laptop-based program used to off-load the information from the aircraft, which is then fed into the third component, Turbine Tracker, an Internet-based site that stores all the customers data and provides access "24/7" from anywhere in the world. Turbine Tracker also has a system called Watch List within it, "where our analysts will actually status an aircraft within a fleet for the customer. If something were to go to a yellow or red status, the system automatically generates an e-mail to a designee of the customer. They get the message that something is going on, then they can log onto Turbine Tracker and see what it is."

The fourth component is a staff of analysts serving as performance engineers "who watch our customers' data for trend monitoring," he said. Customers can either sign up for continuous monitoring by Altair, who will contact the customer if they spot a problem, or the customer can simply call Altair for performance data if they notice something wrong.

Thompson said Altair is in the process of finalizing an STC for a helicopter "Altair Data Acquisition System digital" (ADASd), an enhanced digital system of the TrendCheck system certified for the PWC PT6A engine.

The ADASd will hook directly into an ARINC 429 buss, "giving us the capability to gather data directly off the existing aircraft buss without sending a string of sensors all over the place. It will really move us into the next evolution of products," Thompson said. The original ADAS is similar to the SmartCycle, but developed for fixed wing aircraft.

Key benefit of the IntelliStart and SmartCycle systems is that they either provide the maintenance section with information that can assist in trouble shooting and repairing an engine, or provide information which may prevent having to perform ad hoc maintenance. "In the past, if a pilot had an event such as an over-torque, he would come back and tell the maintenance people that he had the over-torque, but might not know how long or how badly it was over-torqued," Thompson said. "Now the mechanics are going to see the event in our web-based Turbine Tracker, and through that they will have a series of tools they can use to actually determine how long the aircraft was in over-torque and how bad. By looking at the data, the mechanic might say it was only over by 1 percent for maybe two seconds, so according to the maintenance manuals, they don't need to do anything. They just saved themselves a tear-down. It eliminates the guesswork."

The Altair systems do not substitute for schedule inspections or scheduled maintenance, Thompson said. However, PWC does have service bulletins that allow customers to use the engine monitoring system to put their engine "on condition." The service bulletins allow engine condition trend monitoring (ECTM) for the "on condition" status. "This (ECTM) is something we do with a program developed by Pratt that we use to analyze the data. For helicopters, we put an `H' in front of the ECTM and we can trend PWC turboshaft engines. So when you combine regular data recording with regular HECTM trending, that gives substantiation for a company to take their maintenance to `on condition'," he said.

While it would be difficult to come up with a precise cost savings because of the wide variations in engines and operating conditions, the typical operator will save in excess of $10 per engine, Thompson said. One example is an operator who is saving $10 an hour "just on hot start prevention, which is provided by our IntelliStart product. Other operators are saving $13 to $14 an hour just by reducing their overhaul costs by having less severe overhauls," he said. A SmartCycle system runs around $16,000, while IntelliStart "typically starts around $20,000."

Altair reported a doubling of revenues in 2004 over 2003, "and enjoyed a 55 percent increase in steady state business growth," with 2005 expected to see "substantial growth" over that, Thompson said. The company currently has about 1500 active customers with some 2400 systems installed through 2004 "and about another 200 sold through the first half of 2005," he said.

The company has already announced several new orders for its various products earlier this year. It announced during the HAI Heli-Expo in Anaheim, Calif. last February that the U.S. Army had purchased 175 DTUs for installation in its TH-67 training fleet to go along with the aircrafts' IntelliStart systems. Schweizer announced at the HAI show that it had chosen the IntelliStart system "as the Health and Usage Monitoring System (HUMS) for the Schweizer Model 333," while Bell announced selection of the SmartCycle system as a HUMS for its 412 helicopters. Altair already had placed its IntelliStart system on three Bell 206Ls belonging to the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

Both the TH-67 (a military 206 training) and Schweizer 333 are powered by Rolls-Royce Model 250 engines, the engine that provided the geneses for the IntelliStart product, Thompson said. Allied Signal originally provided the fuel control system for the Allison Model 250 engine, "so we developed the IntelliStart in conjunction with Allied Signal for that product, specifically targeted at the Bell 206 because it had such a large fleet," he said. When Allied Signal purchased Honeywell and took the Honeywell name, Altair kept up its relationship with the new Honeywell. However, that relationship didn't work out as envisioned, so it was terminated. It was shortly afterwards that Altair was acquired by PWC Service Centre, "which has a program called Fleet Management Program, or FMP, and saw that we had the capability to support that program," he said.

The company has since been moving as a natural evolution of going from hydro-mechanical legacy

aircraft towards more electronic capability as the market matures, Thompson said.

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