NAV Canada’s air traffic control technology has become a staple at airports around the world

In a basement testing facility near the Macdonald-Cartier International Airport, Jim Hill is helping to shape the future of air traffic control technology.

Mr. Hill is a tower systems specialist for NAV Canada, the private agency created two decades ago to operate the country’s flight control systems. Over the years, the company has forged an enviable reputation for innovation, thanks in part to its groundbreaking work in developing a computerized system to replace the archaic paper strips that have been used to track flights at control towers since the dawn of commercial air travel.

In the old days, Mr. Hill explains, air traffic controllers would sometimes have to toss the plastic containers holding the paper strips, which contain information such as flight numbers, across the room to someone else who would then put them in their proper positions on the tracking board that lists flights in order of their arrival and departure times.

Today, thanks to technology that NAV Canada pioneered and sells around the world, all that information is available at a glance on a digital screen.

“It lets us have the brainpower to do the big-picture stuff – to monitor the traffic and what’s going on,” Mr. Hill says, standing next to a colour computer display showing the status of various flights within the tower’s jurisdiction. “That’s what safety’s all about.”

It’s a far cry from the way things were in 1996 when NAV Canada was launched. The agency knew it needed to revamp its antiquated technology, but a computer system designed by a private contractor to help controllers route traffic between airports was plagued by delays and technical problems, forcing the company to dramatically rethink its approach.

“We really quickly realized … the technology was obsolete, run-down,” says Rudy Kellar, NAV Canada’s vice-president of service delivery. “There was a need for a lot of capital to build new technology, new facilities. We chose to start building our own technology software for ourselves. Not very long in, we realized we entered an area that had a sustainable competitive advantage if we thought about selling it. At that point, we realized there is an opportunity for an alternative revenue stream.”

That decision has paid off handsomely for NAV Canada, an independent non-profit corporation headquartered in downtown Ottawa that employs about 1,000 workers in the National Capital Region.

Many of those employees are software engineers, and the agency is now recognized as a global leader in automated air traffic systems. In 2015, NAV Canada earned about $29 million – two per cent of its total revenue of $1.33 billion – from selling its technology to other flight-control agencies around the world. Products it developed are now in use in eight other countries, including Australia, Denmark, Great Britain and India.

Any surplus revenues NAV Canada generates are poured into new technology and offsetting potential increases in the service fees it charges to airports and their carriers, which have not been raised in a decade.

The company is also a partner with Virginia-based Aireon LLC, which is building a system that uses satellites to track aircraft movements in areas of the world such as oceans and the poles that are too remote to be covered by radar. The technology is designed to allow planes to fly more efficient routes, saving time and reducing fuel consumption.

“This is clearly a case where you’ve got technology making sense because you’re going to be saving fuel and saving money at the same time,” says Grant Headrick, managing director of Toronto-based credit-rating agency DBRS, which tracks NAV Canada.

“From NAV Canada’s standpoint, they’re developing and exporting this wonderful new technology that can be used globally to (reduce) fuel bills and the burning of fossil fuels. Secondly, it’s going to be helpful for their own ratepayers. It’s really a win-win on all sides.”

Mr. Kellar says NAV Canada’s air traffic controllers and software engineers work side by side in the development process, meaning the developers receive immediate feedback from the people who use their products every day. Air traffic control agencies from other countries also offer input into the process.

“We’ve got all of these different controllers contributing to one software build centre on how to make (the technology) better,” he says.

NAV Canada still earns the vast majority of its revenue from charges levied on its main customers, airports and the carriers that serve them. That will never change, Mr. Kellar says, but he notes the corporation’s executives must answer to a board of directors “much like a Fortune 500 company” does, encouraging a culture of innovation.

Those directors include representatives from the aviation and aircraft industries, employee bargaining units, the federal government and private industry.    

“We like to say we’re a non-profit, but we are looking for performance in all of those areas like financial, safety, all these things,” Mr. Kellar explains.

“The technology side of the business has not only provided an alternative source of revenue. What it’s provided is a wider-based idea-generating platform that … allows us to think of ideas to build stuff that contribute back to the safety and all the other aspects. At the end of the day, it’s not as much about the money as it is about what you can do with the technology to provide a safe air traffic management environment.”

Being a private entity frees NAV Canada from “political interference” and red tape that can stifle innovation at government-run navigation agencies, he adds.

“We want the most creative and innovative software and technical people out there to want to come and work here,” Mr. Kellar says. “Our approach is, we put out a (new software) release last month; we think we’ll have another release in six to eight months. What are the good things we’re going to do between now and then to make it better?”