Bray firm wins €2.5 million aviation authority contract
Bray-based tech company Data Edge has won a 10-year €2.5m contract to supply the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) with an air traffic control monitoring system.
The Ballycasey air traffic control centre in Shannon, which handles 80 per cent of all north Atlantic flights, and Dublin Airport, where the IAA schedules around 47 landings and take-offs every hour, will use it for training purposes, procedure review and post-event analysis.
The recording system will go live in March, capturing each individual air traffic controller’s activity as they guide half a million flights a year through Irish airspace, recording everything from voice communication and screen activity to keyboard actions, all synchronised and time stamped for an exact replay of events.
The deal highlights how indigenous firms can compete for high value and highly specialised contracts that may at first appear to be outside of their comfort zone.
A network and application performance management company, Data Edge’s core business is built around telcos like Eircom and O2, but the convergence of IP technologies is helping it to compete successfully in new markets.
“The technology used for the types of recording system used by air traffic control are based on computers and hard disks now, rather than tape. So they are not dissimilar to the managing and monitoring system we specialise in,” said Brian McBride, managing director of Data Edge.
A key requirement for both its network clients and the IAA is Data Edge’s core expertise in synchronising data from different sources. Winning the Europe-wide tender process did, however, depend on bringing together niche suppliers.
“Replaying radar with voice is a complex process with different components that have to be integrated properly,” said McBride.
German-based Atis-Uher and Symmetricom were used for the voice recording and timing technologies respectively, while Skysoft in Switzerland supplied the visual monitoring tools. It is up to Data Edge to integrate them and provide the ongoing maintenance support from inside Ireland.
The IAA has older recording technology in place but it was more prone to corruption and less exact.
“You want the most accurate replication of what the controller saw to understand why certain decisions were made,” explained Gerald Caffrey, project manager at the IAA. “With this system we get exactly that with every element synchronised.”
Data Edge’s business is built on large capital equipment investments that remain a mainstay of the airline industry at a time when other sectors are tightening their belts and sweating assets for as long as they can.
Typically, the IAA will upgrade major systems every decade to ensure maximum efficiency and productivity. “We push for new technologies but we are also somewhat conservative,” said Caffrey. “When we are buying something we like to see that it has been in service somewhere else. We don’t get involved in any development work.”
In this instance the IAA saw the components of the Data Edge system working for the German equivalent of the IAA. “The integrated recording systems from Data Edge will provide us with added confidence and security as we continue to manage ever-growing volumes of air traffic and increasingly stringent safety legislation,” said Caffrey.
The IAA is a commercial semi-State company employing around 700 people at six locations across Ireland. About half work in air traffic control, which is a big part of its cost base as it strives for improved safety and greater efficiencies. Upgrades are triggered as systems come to the end of their life or if there is a regulatory requirement from Eurocontrol, the organisation responsible for air navigation safety in Europe. The move to have synchronised audio and screen recording will become a legal requirement so the IAA is ahead of the curve.
The IAA breaks its technology requirements down into three core areas: navigation surveillance, flight data processing, and communications. Coming down the track are significant regulatory changes to the last of these with a move to replace voice communications between controllers and pilots with data links and text-based exchanges.
“Research shows that replacing voice with data is more efficient. The controller uses a touchscreen and wouldn’t have to repeat messages. It’s all about trying to eradicate human error,” said Caffrey.
Like any organisation with a big dependency on technology, the pace of change is relentless. A decade ago strip printers were standard issue for air traffic controllers. Used for printing out flight details they have been replaced by screen-based technologies. “If investments can deliver productivity gains it makes sense to keep up to date with technological advancements,” said Caffrey.