AFSS's New SpiderTracks Active Flight Tracking, And More

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For over two years, Lockheed Martin has been investing heavily to develop new applications to bring to its Flight Services, seeking to create what it hopes will be a significantly more useful platform for pilots, but pilots are no longer the only direct users the company targets.

According to Jim Derr, head of flight services, the company plans to develop its available services over time from basic to all encompassing. "It's a reaction to technology," Derr says, "now that smartphones, iPads and tablets are the reality, our systems have to continue to progress." Some of those advances will become apparent to pilots, soon; others may be far less obvious. Some pilots may not even be aware of the benefits they're receiving from Lockheed's systems. And, if that's the case, Derr says it won't necessarily be a bad thing. Actually, it might be good.

Last fall, Lockheed Martin Flight Services rolled out its web site, which went live in November. The effort, says Derr, was part of the company's commitment to add multiple phases of added functionality consistently, free to the pilot, and at no additional charge to the FAA, but as part of the company's original contract with the regulator. Currently, the company says more than 6,000 pilots have signed up. One feature of the site is what Lockheed calls its Adverse Condition Alerting System (ACAS), which pro-actively attempts to contact pilots through a pilot-selected method (telephone, text, or email) when conditions along a planned route of flight change after the pilot has received a briefing. Derr says the service is also available to pilots in flight, provided pilots have equipment capable of receiving the message. The feature was one of many Lockheed says it will be rolling out on a schedule of one every six months with minor upgrades in between. Now we have a new one.

Search And Rescue

Keeping true to its plan, this April Lockheed added the surveillance-enhanced search and rescue (SE-SAR) feature with SpiderTracks. The service operates with SpiderTracks' satellite monitoring product to potentially vastly improve search response times for downed aviators. Operators can register with the AFSS system, enable real-time tracking of individual flights and receive the enhanced services. Once selected, it works this way: if the SpiderTracks device stops transmitting, stops moving, or is activated by the operator to send an emergency signal, AFSS is instantly alerted and initiates the search process. Lockheed does not conduct the search, it notifies search and rescue, but the results can be dramatic.

In practice this means that, "if you've filed a flight plan for a three hour trip and run into trouble and land off-airport within the first 15 minutes of your flight, we can initiate a response within minutes ... not the hours it would otherwise take," says Derr. Without the service, the first action would take place 30 minutes after failure to close the flight plan. And it doesn't begin with search teams looking for a wreckage. It begins with phone calls to try to locate the pilot. "In the three hour flight plan scenario, that could mean a pilot has crashed, is hurt, and is on the ground for well more than three hours before a search is advanced beyond phone calls," says Derr. And SpiderTracks is just the beginning. "As more vendors get online, we'll plug them into the system," Derr told us. The service is not meant to be exclusive to one product.

"We designed this to work with ADS-B," he said, "and that's coming in the relatively near future. We went with SiderTracks' iridium-based system first as a lower cost option to get the concept out there and validated." Derr says Lockheed is already talking to other vendors who "want to do this quickly." And developments could go well beyond search and rescue functionality. Actually, "there are a lot of companies working with us to use us as a focal point for ingestion into the NAS for flight planning," Derr said. Accommodating the concerns of those companies and their user base has become a key driving point for development at Lockheed.

Open Access

The first step of development is access. According to Lockheed development specialist Mike Glasgow, "we're taking the information we've got and making it available free to our vendors." Glasgow and Derr say Lockheed's work here isn't based on direct profit, it's based on improving safety. "We're perfectly happy if people use our stuff through their systems instead of through our website," says Derr. Glasgow adds, "It's a developing synergy that is generating new ideas driven by things that outside vendors want to provide to their customers." In other words, as Lockheed becomes more of a portal for flight planning information and is integrated into more apps and outside services, the company is becoming better tuned to what the customers (pilots) want. And, they hope, better at delivering those services alone, or through an outside entity. So, end users may pay for the services they get, but they won't be paying Lockheed.

That's because Lockheed is making its information avaialable to third party vendors and allowing clients of those vendors (pilots) to interact with the Lockheed systems, free. They're allowing those companies to partner with Lockheed as a free service. "It's for the vendors and the FAA and pilots ... so that we all see progress," says Derr. Users may be paying for some of their services, but they'll be paying their app provider or subscription service, not Lockheed," says Derr.

In one example, Lockheed told us that a request from one major vendor is to add alerting directly into the flight planning phase so that pilots can see ACAS information alerts for items like weather and TFRs when they're doing route planning. According to Derr, the motivation is simple. "Ultimately, people want services that make them safe ... their families want that, too," he said. "And that's our mission."

Lockheed Martin is a for profit company, so all this talk of "we won't charge for that' may seem incongruous. Derr explains it this way, "We obviously have shareholders. But we have a mission to this country. And we take that mission very seriously. In the case of this [Flight Services] program, our mission to the FAA is to create the safest most efficient air traffic systems and airspace in the world. We take that very seriously."

Coming Soon

So what's next? Derr gave us a teaser of future features. He said the company is working on a fall release that will change the way pilots interact with their briefing. Derr called it Next-Gen briefing. He said that Lockheed is aware that pilots sometimes have trouble interpreting the information provided in certain coded formats -- information like that contained in things like TAFS. He specifically mentioned difficulties that pilots can have in finding appropriate weather information as it applies to their appropriate time windows for different sections of their flight. We expect the new service to help with that. Our interpretation of Derr's remarks led us to expect that when the new system rolls out, pilots might see a more graphic delivery of traditionally coded data. And the information will be tuned to the pilot's flight plan and appropriate time windows for each segment of the flight. In other words, users will see information visually displayed relative to a place and a time appropriate to the planned route of flight.

The idea is to apply ideas to flight briefing that make the delivery of all appropriate information faster and easier. Lockheed believes that process will be evolutionary, with changes coming online continuously to adapt to more capabilities, better information delivery systems and new hardware. Lockheed doesn't believe it's the only -- or even the best -- game in town for flight planning services. What it does believe is that, through its extensive defense work, it provides the most cyber-secure and reliable source information for both its own services and for use by third party programs websites and apps. And toward that end, "We're perfectly happy if people use our stuff through another vendor instead of accessing it through our website. It's the synergy that matters ... it makes all our products better and a larger range of pilots, safer," Derr argues.

In the end, the company realizes that there are areas where it has some catching up to do. A main focus now is to modernize its ability to provide products and information to pilots through the most popular and advanced hardware and software currently available. And, to work with vendors to integrate functionality into systems currently in development. Pilots will see that happening as Flight Service utilities and interfaces are upgraded within Lockheed's own products. But they'll also be benefiting from the company's development of new and existing relationships with third party providers. "This isn't a game you finish," says Derr. "The goal here is to keep getting better."

Derr says his company is listening to customer feedback. And a chance is coming for some of you. "At large outreach events like AOPA Summit and EAA's AirVenture Oshkosh ... we take advantage of those venues for both presentation and feedback. We send select groups. They talk to the pilot associations and we hear their concerns. We ask them what they think of what we're doing and we make changes that try to incorporate their desires to provide what they really want."