Vision 1000: A Black Box Recorder For Small Aircraft
When 18-year-old Jordan Wells saw the Maryland State Police helicopter land on that foggy night in 2008, she probably breathed a sigh of relief: Having just survived a violent car accident, she had every reason to believe she was finally safe: In moments, she and her friend Ashley Younger would be safely airlifted to the hospital, where they would be patched up, and if lucky, released to go home.
Unfortunately, her problems were only beginning.
The start of the flight was uneventful. But because of the thick layer of fog, the pilot soon announced that visibility was too poor for landing at the hospital – instead, they’d land at nearby Andrews Air Force Base, and ambulances would take the injured girls to the hospital from there.
This was not to be. Out of five people on board when the helicopter went down in a wooded area a few miles from Andrews, Jordan – who lost her right leg in the crash – was the only survivor.
Such accidents involving medical helicopters are not only tragic, but disturbingly common – the safety of medical helicopters and their operations has been a longstanding concern of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). To compound the problem, the causes of such accidents have frequently remained unsolved because flight-data recording (FDR) systems, such as those used on commercial airliners, have always been too large, mechanically complex, and costly for use on smaller aircraft. This not only deprives bereaved families of some degree of closure, but deprives the NTSB and flight professionals of crucial lessons that could be used to improve the safety of future operations.
Fortunately, this dangerous information gap is now being closed, thanks to the innovative technology in the Vision 1000, a compact, low-cost FDR system for light aircraft created by North Dakota-based Appareo. Because this technology has finally made FDR systems practical and affordable for smaller aircraft, such systems – whether by Appareo or other manufacturers – are now legally required on all medical helicopters in the US.
What has made the Vision 1000 a game-changer, according to Appareo President and COO David Batcheller, is that unlike traditional FDR systems, the Vision 1000 does not rely on data from other aircraft avionics. Instead, the software-driven camera inside the 9-ounce device collects, interprets, and records critical flight information itself.
“What this lets us do is view a lot of data acquisition from the aircraft without having to go touch a bunch of flight-critical instrumentation. When you do that in the aviation world, it drives the cost way up and drives the certification burden way up,” Batcheller explained.
“So what we did was develop a bunch of really, really, really cool stuff for figuring out where a thing is in the world and which direction and orientation it’s pointing – ‘where am I? Am I at ground level, and how far off ground level? Am I leaning to one side, am I leaning forward or backward, am I moving or walking sideways?’ These are some of the spatial dimensions we can figure out,” Batcheller said.
The tiny (4 inches at its widest point) and unobtrusive Vision 1000 is FAA-certified for use on a range of light aircraft, including popular makes such as Cessna, Piper, and Airbus Helicopters, which is a major client. “The product is standard equipment on most of their light helicopters,” Batcheller said.
And while the Vision 1000 has been successfully used for accident reconstruction, its far more common and important use is helping prevent accidents in the first place. Its software not only records flight data, but allows 3D playback including audio and synchronized imaging; it also analyzes flight data, generates written flight records, and flags any anomalies. These features have made it popular with flight instructors and fleet operators, who’ve incorporated the playback functions and reports into their pilot training and monitoring – thus giving them the power to identify and correct dangerous habits and practices before they become safety issues.
None of this would have been possible, Batcheller said, without the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program of the US Air Force. The SBIR program awards “seed” funds to small businesses, enabling them to explore the feasibility of cutting-edge technology concepts that could lead to new products that save lives, strengthen US security and fuel economic growth. That funding is awarded to companies on a highly competitive basis. The technology behind the Vision 1000 evolved from an SBIR grant to develop spatial recognition devices for the Air Force.
When their SBIR funding began in 2008, Appareo had only 20 employees, 10 of whom worked on the SBIR project at any given time (they have since grown to 180 employees in all). “It [the SBIR grant] gave us the ability to put that kind of capital and time into it,” Batcheller said. “At the time, we were still kind of small and working to get different parts of the business growing. If you’re a small business person, if you’re committed to the application of that science to other areas, you have a unique opportunity with the SBIR. Say you’re not in a position to finance it yourself, you can still create a demonstrable prototype – it can have civilian applications, it can have military applications. And securing the private investments you need ahead becomes more straightforward when you can show someone something that’s working.”
As a result of their SBIR support, Appareo has now created a product that’s set a new legal standard for medical helicopter safety and become a powerful, widely used tool for ensuring pilot readiness and flight safety. And while no technology can stop all air accidents, those being airlifted to safety today have the comfort of knowing the helicopter carrying them is safer than ever.