Airbox Systems: Safety net

Aviation has been a passion for Airbox co-founder William Moore since he first flew in a warbird as a freshly minted engineering graduate. Shortly after becoming a private pilot in 2008, he was introduced to designer and entrepreneur Tom Hedges, and together they started Airbox Systems with a view to making private flying safer.

The U.K. had experienced a threefold increase in airspace incursions over half a decade — mostly by privately flown aircraft — and the country’s principal air navigation service provider, National Air Traffic Services (NATS), was looking for a solution. While aviation GPS navigation systems were available, most were certified units too large or expensive to be widely adopted, particularly by those operating in the burgeoning ultralight sector.

The author demos the Airbox app on an Apple iPad while in an Airbus H145 simulator. Lloyd Horgan Photo
The author demos the Airbox app on an Apple iPad while in an Airbus H145 simulator. Lloyd Horgan Photo
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Moore and Hedges set about finding a lightweight solution that would be affordable for private pilots, while being able to provide effective warning of nearby airspace.

“I’m a terrible navigator, and I knew I’d get lost!” said Moore when Vertical 911 visited the company’s Oxfordshire headquarters. “There was no navigation system at the time that I felt was really good enough, so that was how we ended up developing our own product.”

The system that they designed, while basic, was delivered in conjunction with NATS and was the lowest-cost solution available, winning them the Honeywell Bendix Trophy for Aviation Safety. But this proved to be just the beginning, as early on in the company’s existence it became apparent that with some minor additions, the software could be tweaked to provide other operators with the tools they needed to stay safe.

With the advent of the Apple iPad came a reliable platform that allowed them to focus on the software, releasing the potential to execute the kind of features that they wanted to provide. “Originally it was just the two of us sitting in an office and trying to figure out how to do navigation,” said Moore, “but along the way, we were introduced to Gerry Hill, who did 34 years in the SAS [Special Air Service] and ran counter-terrorism for them, so he came with a huge amount of tactical experience.”

That tactical experience opened the door for Moore and Hedges to begin development of their ground-based software. Meanwhile, interest in their aviation app was growing among parapublic helicopter operators, and the marketplace for navigation apps was becoming more and more competitive.

“Most of the products were for GA [general aviation] pilots,” Moore said, “but there are a lot of hazards out there for guys operating at low-level that GA pilots don’t have to worry about.”

Chief among these hazards was the threat of power lines, which crisscross the patchwork British countryside in an apparently random fashion. High tension lines rise as high as 250 feet, but so-called “domestics,” on 30- to 50-foot poles, can be just as lethal during the final approach to an ad hoc landing site. All can be extremely hard to spot in the kind of difficult lighting conditions that are typical under the leaden U.K. stratus.

A critical care paramedic (CCP) from Wiltshire's Air Ambulance uses the app to check on the field landing area prior to their arrival. Lloyd Horgan Photo
A critical care paramedic (CCP) from Wiltshire’s Air Ambulance uses the app to check on the field landing area prior to their arrival. Lloyd Horgan Photo

Moore and Hedges, by now leading a small technical team, set about incorporating the entire U.K. database of vertical obstructions into their app. It was an instant hit with pilots who frequently found themselves making field landings at short notice, notably helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) and search-and-rescue (SAR) operators.

Once the vertical obstruction warning system was fully developed, Moore and Hedges started looking at other ways to reduce the workload of the busy crews flying demanding missions in difficult conditions. The integration of Google Street View and aerial photography made it easier for HEMS crews to identify unsuitable proposed landing areas while en route, and the introduction of complex fuel planning calculations was arguably critical in securing the company’s contract with the U.K. Search and Rescue provider, Bristow Helicopters.

For the U.K.’s National Police Air Service, data from recent crime statistics can be overlaid so that crews returning to base with fuel to spare can route over areas with higher recent criminal activity, with measurable deterrent effect.

Revolutionary potential

As the company’s experience grew, so did its size and the technical capacity to incorporate more diverse data streams, which in turn attracted more customers. Meanwhile, smartphones and the ubiquity of social media — allied to a seemingly insouciant attitude of the general public about sharing their location — have generated even greater opportunities to deliver information to those who can use it for good, whether that is in locating those in peril or pursuing those who would do others harm.

Often now the first data that becomes available about developing large-scale emergencies emerges through social media. Hard-coded within it is often the precise coordinates of its originator, bringing an unprecedented ability to rapidly verify the ground truth, and better inform first responders.

Functionality now being implemented will allow those caught up in emergency situations to provide information to responders without even having specific software installed on their devices. A text message will request permission to access their phone, which if granted gives the originator temporary access, via the Airbox app, to sensors integrated into the device. This promises to be a powerful aid to locating stranded survivors, or gathering intelligence from which to decide how and where to act.

The current iteration of the software is clearly a powerful tool that has come a long way from a moving map designed to aid the avoidance of airspace or inconveniently positioned power-grid infrastructure. Moore, however, is adamant that the core philosophy of the company remains consistent with his original vision, saying, “The real thrust of what we do is safety, and a lot of the other benefits flow from that.

Map or app? A pilot from the Royal Navy's 849 Naval Air Squadron uses the app whilst on a navigational sortie from Cornwall to the Oxfordshire area. Lloyd Horgan Photo
Map or app? A pilot from the Royal Navy’s 849 Naval Air Squadron uses the app whilst on a navigational sortie from Cornwall to the Oxfordshire area. Lloyd Horgan Photo

“I think we’ve been able to make low-level flying a lot safer with our kit, and developed a lot of expertise doing so, so much so that we’re starting to see larger avionics companies coming to us for that knowledge.”

A cooperative approach

The subject of larger avionics companies is an interesting one, because Airbox software is not certified by any aviation regulator. For a company that is still operated by an extremely small team, entering into competition with the established giants would be a commercial impossibility. Here again though, the company sees opportunities rather than threats, preferring a collaborative approach in preference to one of competition.

Operating in the highly regulated environment of aviation makes it inevitable that platforms operated by prospective customers will always require certified systems, and Moore explained why operating alongside them, and even cooperating with them, makes sense. “What we bring is agility,” he said. “I can’t even begin to list the number of new features that we would be able to deliver in the time it takes to incorporate them into a certified system.

“Let’s say you’re in law enforcement and you want to start locating stolen cashboxes and putting that location data in front of a pilot. There’s no realistic way that I’ve seen to quickly and cost-effectively incorporate that capability into a certified system.”

The partnership between small innovators like Airbox and the far bigger, well established names is not a one-way street, and each must bring value to the other. When dealing with the particular functionality in which Airbox has specialized, it is unlikely that sufficient customers exist to support the cost of complete integration into a certified system. Even if they did, the speed of development of feeder systems that are not subject to the same lumbering certification apparatus would rapidly render them obsolete.

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Airbox’s canniness in this regard is demonstrated by its development of related products serving ground operators, and working to establish them as part of national crisis-response infrastructure. In simultaneously developing two highly compatible but separately optimized systems, Airbox has become a gatekeeper of a rapidly establishing ecosystem into which larger companies see value in integrating. Network-enabled air/ground integration capability has hitherto been the sole preserve of the military. The emphasis here, Moore said, is on making it easily achievable across large, diverse teams of first responders.

The Airbox team at their office in Wantage, Oxfordshire. Lloyd Horgan Photo
The Airbox team at their office in Wantage, Oxfordshire. Lloyd Horgan Photo

“We work with a lot of ground guys, for example in counter-terrorist roles, and they’ve been really focused on the information sharing, but getting the air guys to link up when they’re used to just using a radio has been a challenge,” he said. “We’re now seeing ground teams using it in the same roles that we’ve already got helicopter crews using it, and it’s proving extremely powerful.”

Anyone who has tried to coordinate activity on the ground from an aircraft will see the potential here. Descriptions of locations, people, or objects tend to be protracted, but radio transmissions must be brief. Meanwhile, communicating with the rest of the crew becomes difficult as you each try to pick the right moment to speak. Messages passed across various frequencies often become muddled, or bloated networks become log jammed as everybody tries to speak at once.

The power of a common situational picture, shared across all users and constantly updated, could be life-saving during complex parapublic missions involving a broad spectrum of responders. In this environment, a picture or line on a map is worth more than a thousand words and represents a far more valuable commodity: time.

At first glance, the role and purpose of Airbox’s latest software is very different to its civilian progenitors, but a common thread runs between them in a way that is distinct to small companies with passionate leadership. At Airbox, that leadership has completely galvanized a small team around a common purpose, and anyone visiting their offices could be left in no doubt as to what it is. Photographs of HEMS customers bedeck the walls of the open areas, while kept in private are mementos from other
clients whose organizations, while recognizable, prefer to go without recognition.

At the center of the company is a clear philosophy that with the application of careful thought, design, and innovation, a simple product can be turned into a tool that will protect those who keep the rest of us safe.

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