Understanding the customer and finding a partner have proved key to transitioning from research company to product developer for AeroTech Research, a U.S. specialist in atmospheric hazard detection and avoidance.

“We developed a couple of technologies within NASA research projects on how to improve radar detection of turbulence and how to interpret turbulence to automatically make reports to the ground,” says Paul Robinson, president of AeroTech, a 10-person company founded in 1994 and based in Newport News, Va.

Turbulence encounters cost airlines hundreds of millions of dollars annually in aircraft inspections and repairs, crew and passenger injuries, and delays and fuel costs. AeroTech's major product is the Turbulence Auto-Pirep System (TAPS), onboard software that automatically detects turbulence encounters and downlinks reports to the ground for dissemination to aircraft operators and air traffic control.

“We started to work with some airlines and got more focused on understanding who needs the information and what to do with it,” Robinson says. “We got dragged into the business side by airline management saying, 'This will help us save some money.' We started to build the business case for our product. This was a difficult step for us, away from basic research and into commercial product implementation.”

AeroTech was helped along the way by developing close relationships with a major customer and a larger industry player, weather-information provider WSI. “We started discussions with American Airlines and signed a licensing agreement with WSI. That was a good step for us,” Robinson says.

“We have found airlines like the product, but they want an integrated solution,” he says. “Our stuff needs to be integrated. WSI integrated TAPS with its Fusion weather decision-making tools. American Airlines is a customer; they pay for a service and get it with the same quality as other WSI products.”

AeroTech has “not been very successful” in establishing working relationships with the large OEMs. “It's hard to get their attention,” says Robinson. “But we have had success with mid-sized companies, where it is clear we are a complementary feature and it's a win-win for both.”

A tie-up with a larger company made commercial sense for AeroTech, he says. “WSI is well set up to support the product, and through them we get access to other airlines, domestically and internationally.” WSI has also helped AeroTech weather the airlines' slow procurement cycle. “Big organizations take time to make decisions, which is a challenge for a small company that we have been able to withstand by teaming with WSI.”

Slow adoption has affected another AeroTech product, the E-Turb hazard-prediction algorithm for aircraft weather radars. “Airlines don't like to pay for software upgrades to radar they have already bought, so we are beholden to the rate of adoption of a new radar,” Robinson says.

In the case of TAPS, airline interest meant the company found itself having to establish the business case for the product of a research project. “We've developed a methodology to help airlines understand the cost of turbulence. They are already paying for it, but the cost is often buried,” he says. “When you start to identify the costs, you can implement procedures to avoid them—such as not inspecting aircraft when you don't need to because the turbulence was not severe enough. Or being aware of where the rough air is, so you don't spend money hunting for smooth air.”

Robinson emphasizes that AeroTech is focused on “bringing in data in the right way, at the right time, to help [customers] avoid the costs. We've been talking to the International Air Transport Association over the last couple of years. They are big on improving cost-avoidance, as they believe airlines can't cut their way back to profitability.”

AeroTech continues to pursue research. “We are developing a way to detect wake encounters. The business case is quite strong, particularly combined with dynamic spacing optimization, when aircraft timing and trajectory is based on ambient atmospheric conditions,” he says. Wake detection “is a way to ensure the level of safety is maintained as you optimize spacing to squeeze in a couple of extra flights.”