Ottawa aerospace firm’s video technology takes flight

There’s a technological movement happening in one niche of the world’s aerospace industry, and a small Ottawa company has been a guiding part of the liftoff.

Those who have travelled by airplane just about anywhere in the world will probably recognize the tall, 360-degree windowed towers standing high above the airport. These air traffic control towers monitor activity within the airport surface, such as runways, taxiways, gates and the surrounding airspace. In Canada, there are 41 air traffic control towers and seven area control centres that monitor more than five million aircraft movements a year.

As air traffic volume continues to grow, airports looking to meet the demand stand to benefit greatly from new technology designed to optimize the surface of an airfield, says Moodie Cheikh, co-founder and CEO of local firm Searidge Technologies.

“It kind of seems archaic that there are people sitting in a building looking out the windows … (given) the state of technology today,” says Mr. Cheikh. “That’s one of our highest growth opportunities right now, it’s addressing exactly (that).”

Searidge, founded in 2001, sells a patented proprietary video platform that presents a real-time digital image of all areas of an airport surface, including those that might be fully or partially blind to the air traffic controller, and builds in additional safety features. 

The 40-person company supplies both air traffic control organizations and the airports themselves, with revenues split almost evenly between those two streams. Searidge’s revenues increased by 60 per cent this year, the most lucrative of the last five consecutive profitable years.

In 2008, Searidge became the first company to implement an operational video system in an air traffic control tower when its technology was adopted by Abu Dhabi International Airport in the United Arab Emirates. 

Since then, the company has won contracts at almost 30 airports in just shy of 20 countries. Searidge’s international customers include Heathrow Airport in London, Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, Dubai International Airport and Hamad International Airport in Qatar. Canadian clients include airports in Ottawa, Edmonton, Halifax, London, Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg.

“We’re pretty proud that this little Ottawa technology company was the first to do this in such a heavily regulated industry,” says Mr. Cheikh.

Indeed, the adoption cycle for new technology is quite long in a highly risk-averse and safety-critical environment. 

“It was a lot more conservative than we even thought it would be,” says Mr. Cheikh. Searidge needed to not only prove its technology is more safe than existing methods, but also to show that it won’t slash employment.

Air traffic controllers were ranked third in Canadian Business’s list of Canada’s best jobs in 2015, with a median salary of $87,360. It’s already a selective job market, with roughly 5,100 employees at what’s essentially the country’s only employer for the profession, the capital corporation NAV Canada (which has actually owned Searidge since 2010).

But Mr. Cheikh says technological intervention will actually be better for labour, since in addition to currently employed controllers using the technology to perform their jobs more efficiently, even more air traffic experts will be needed to oversee air control centres offering service to sites where there was no service before.

In Sweden, for example, the Örnsköldsvik Airport in the country’s central east region recently became the first airport in the world at which the control tower is unoccupied and controlled remotely by air traffic controllers viewing the video from kilometres away, powered by a Searidge competitor, a Swedish aerospace company called Saab.

Örnsköldsvik Airport is one example of a site that’s essential to local residents, yet too small to justify the cost of a multimillion-dollar control tower plus the salaries of multiple controllers. Searidge says it’s also a solution for airports with only seasonal traffic, airports that have low visibility and airports located in remote areas where there are staffing shortages. 

Those scenarios are where Searidge sees huge potential.

“We’re able to provide services to sites that haven’t been fortunate enough to have services because they don’t meet the minimum criteria for complex traffic or volume,” says Mr. Cheikh.

Optimization can also solve issues at the world’s largest airports such as Heathrow, which are already running at full capacity. Passenger volume has been increasing by five to seven per cent per year globally, and in some areas such as China and the Gulf states it is growing at an even faster rate. Searidge says its technology would better optimize airports’ surface areas in order to fly more airplanes in and out.

About a year ago, Hungary awarded Searidge a contract to video-automate Budapest Ferenc Liszt International Airport so that its airport surface traffic is remotely managed at a control centre a few kilometres away. 

Mr. Cheikh says a handful of other countries, including Italy’s air traffic control service provider, ENAV S.p.A., are also “very aggressively” pursuing remote towers.

“If you’re restricted on the ground to the point where you just can’t bring in any more airplanes,” he says, “you’re ultimately restricting the airline’s ability to fly people in and out of your country.”