Kelowna researcher brings advanced flight monitoring to small aircraft

A Kelowna, British Columbia, entrepreneur is filling a void in the aviation market with the launch of a first-of-its-kind lightweight cockpit video recorder that serves as a highly effective, cost-effective flight data monitoring solution for small aircraft.

Mounted behind a pilot, facing forward, the SkyVU system captures and digitizes aircraft gauge values as well as pilot audio and the view outside the windshield. Skip Robinson Photo
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The ground-breaking product has earned Ephraim Nowak, 26, a prestigious award from Mitacs, a not-for-profit organization that fosters growth and innovation in Canada for business and academia.

In recognition of the ongoing success of his start-up and its work to develop a simple-to-install flight video recorder that improves safety, enhances training and helps to reduce maintenance costs, Nowak — a former Mitacs intern in the departments of computer science and electrical engineering at the University of British Columbia, and founder and CEO of Kelowna-based start-up Percept Systems — was presented the Mitacs Change Agent Entrepreneur Award on May 28 at a ceremony in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Nowak’s flagship product, SkyVU, is a custom computer vision system that combines high-definition 4K cameras and cutting-edge frames-per-second recording capabilities with the latest embedded machine vision technologies. Mounted behind a pilot, facing forward, the system captures and digitizes aircraft gauge values as well as pilot audio and the view outside the windshield. Once a flight is completed, the recorded footage is downloaded and analyzed, using custom software developed by Percept Systems to extract aircraft parameters.

“This feat has never been accomplished before,” said Nowak, who came up with the idea for SkyVU as a search-and-rescue volunteer after visiting the site of the small plane crash that took the life of former Alberta premier Jim Prentice in 2016. “When that investigation report came back inconclusive because there was no data recorder on board, it opened my eyes to the fact that here’s where I can apply my skills to make a difference,” he said.

Unlike other cockpit recorders that require connection to the gauges themselves to obtain numeric values, SkyVU operates on video only, making it simple to install and keeping the cost down. All that’s required is a connection to aircraft power, which means it’s an attractive solution for private airplanes, helicopters and small commercial aircraft that currently aren’t required to have a black box recorder.

“In addition to assisting when something goes wrong, we find it’s quite useful to have video from a troubleshooting and training perspective as well,” said Nowak, explaining that a pilot might notice a gauge is acting up. Once they land, they can review the footage with their maintenance team instead of trying to reproduce what happened in the air.

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This summer, Percept Systems’ SkyVU prototype will be deployed on two Rapattack wildfire helicopters, specialized aircraft used to rappel firefighters into remote areas. Working with its industry partner, Wildcat Helicopters, the company is currently refining its prototype and expects to move into production by third quarter 2019 with the aim of going to market by the end of this year. Founded by Nowak in 2018, the company is also partnering with the B.C. Wildfire Service to develop an aerial mapping system.

Nowak is one of five winners of the Entrepreneur Award, presented by Mitacs, who are being recognized for their efforts to turn their research into an innovative business that impacts the lives of Canadians.

“Canada has exceptional talent and Mitacs is extremely proud to support young entrepreneurs in spring-boarding to market the next generation of innovations,” said Alejandro Adem, Mitacs CEO and scientific director, noting that one out of every 10 Mitacs interns chooses to pursue their own business. “Their contributions are strengthening the Canadian economy, spurring productivity and creating jobs.”

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