CONCORD, Mass., April 21, 2003 — Stanley Durlacher knows what it means to be out of touch.
A private pilot with his own single-engine Cessna aircraft, the 52-year-old former construction executive has flown around the Northeast many times. And like many other pilots, he has endured all manner of unexpected difficulties: turbulence, lousy weather, closed runways.
A typical nuisance came when tried to land at Saranac Lake in upstate New York to meet his wife. As he approached, poor weather conditions forced him to divert to Lake Placid — 56 miles away. Durlacher had no way to tell his wife about the diversion until he landed; by then, he was 90 minutes late and his wife, Annie, feared a crash.
“Nobody knew where I was,” he said. “She had no way to contact me.”
Durlacher decided to solve the problem, and MEMS turned out to be the solution. He founded FlyTimer Corp., an eight-person startup next door to Hanscom Airport in suburban Boston. Using a tiny digital signal processor and a collection of other components squeezed onto a single chip, FlyTimer has devised a new datalink transceiver for aircraft communications. If all goes well, Durlacher said, isolation in the air could soon disappear.
FlyTimer’s system-on-a-chip device, called the XLLink, will let the “general aviation” market of corporate aircraft and private pilots tap into a nationwide network of ground-based flight services that currently only commercial airlines can afford to use.
Most people don’t know it, but much of a commercial airline flight is managed from the ground by airline staff; cockpit pilots pretty much focus on flying the aircraft. Employees on terra firma use a system called the ACARS network to handle tasks such as scheduling maintenance for the plane once it lands, determining weather conditions along the flight path or monitoring air traffic jams.
“They have the ability to let other people fly the airplane,” Durlacher said. “The guy on the corporate jet doesn’t have that access.”
ACARS, created by airlines in the late 1970s, has been out of general aviation’s reach because existing datalink technology is too bulky and expensive for small planes; the equipment can cost $100,000 or more and weigh as much as 25 pounds. FlyTimer’s XLLink is no larger than a shoebox and weighs about three pounds. Durlacher said it will sell for about $20,000 — reasonable for small planes, which can cost $200,000 brand new down to about $30,000 used.
FlyTimer has already won approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to begin selling the product; Durlacher and other company officials say they will announce customer contracts later this spring.
“If you can cut five or 10 minutes per flight, you can pay off the equipment in less than a year,” said James Becker, a former Air Force pilot who is FlyTimer’s president. “When you can whittle things down, the savings add up pretty quickly.”
Aviation industry analysts estimate that about 7,000 general aviation aircraft zip around U.S. skies every day, and at least an equal number do so in Europe. “It’s a sizeable market,” said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with Teal Group Corp., an aerospace and defense consulting firm in Virginia. “If you keep the price down, it’s just a question of hobby. Everybody wants one. … Twenty-five thousand [in cost] is enough to get started.”
The ACARS network works somewhat like sending e-mail via a hand-held computer. The pilot logs into the service through his “electronic flight bag,” which is really a computer tablet, enters a request for, say, the weather at San Francisco International Airport. That request is transmitted to the nearest ACARS antenna (several hundred exist across the country) and relayed to the network operating center in Maryland. Computers there pull current weather data from San Francisco and send it back to the pilot’s tablet within a few seconds.
FlyTimer is not the only company that works with ACARS to offer datalink services to pilots, but it is apparently one of the only ones pursuing general aviation. Pentar Avionics in Bothell, Wash., for example, sells equipment that costs slightly more to larger corporate fleets and regional airlines. “Their system wouldn’t be adequate for our customers’ needs,” said Bob Rodgers, Pentar Avionics’ president. “But it is a good product for the market they want to serve.”
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The company was founded by Stanley Durlacher, a private pilot who became acutely aware of many ways in which individual aviators were isolated from the ground-based flight communications network. FlyTimer markets the FT2000, which allows pilot communication with ground-based services via a handheld tablet. Its latest effort is the MEMS-based XLLink system.
Small tech-related products and services
FlyTimer is developing the XLLink, a system-on-a-chip device for use in aviation. The device is a MEMS-based datalink transceiver that uses a digital signal processor and other components. This transceiver allows private pilots to use existing ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System) flight-related services such as maintenance scheduling, weather alerts and air traffic control. The XLLink’s small form factor — roughly the size of a shoebox — and $20,000 price tag make it more feasible for small pilots than the industry’s existing $100,000, 25-pound model used for large commercial aircraft.
Selected strategic partners and customers
Durlacher plans to announce a customer list later this spring; the product has already received FAA approval. Scientific Generics Ltd. used its expertise in wireless communications to help FlyTimer develop its radio receiver module. CorcoranWeb helped develop the software used in the FlyTimer 2000 Aviation Pack hand-held pilot support system.
Why they’re in small tech
“It was really the only solution our engineers could use to get everthing small enough and cheap enough for us,” said company founder Stanley Durlacher.
What keeps them up at night
We have a good handle on the “known unknowns.” It’s the “unknown unknowns” that keep us awake — something like, say, the FCC pulling the frequency spectrum. Something that you can’t conceive would ever happen,” Durlacher said.
— Research by Gretchen McNeely