WATERLOO — There aren't many businesses with a product that can help search-and-rescue teams save lives while also helping governments save money.
But Pointer Avionics has such a product.
The small Waterloo company designs and makes digital 406-megahertz emergency locator transmitter beacons under the brand name SkyHunter406. The beacons can more precisely pinpoint the location of a plane that has crashed in the bush; at the same time, they cut down on the millions of dollars that taxpayers spend each year on false search-and-rescue missions.
Pointer is a 36-year-old company that was founded in Mississauga. Bruce McPherson, the current president, bought the business in 1999 and brought it to Waterloo Region. The six-employee firm is located on Dotzert Court.
McPherson was in a completely different field, doing medical practice consulting, when a friend told him about the opportunity to buy Pointer. He saw a product in a changing technology market and decided this was where the future was. "It was fascinating for me," he says.
McPherson says the industry's roots go back to the 1970s, after the deaths of Senator Thomas Hale Boggs Sr. and Congressman Nick Begich in the United States. Their plane, travelling over a remote section of Alaska, went down in 1972 and was never found. Governments began mandating emergency locator transmitters in private aircraft, and Pointer started making them in 1978.
The original beacons were based on the same technology that was used in transistor radios. Today, the technology is digital and far more sophisticated.
Pointer started selling its 406 MHz units in 2012. "In terms of the engineering and international testing time, it took us about four years to get all of our certifications in place," McPherson says. "It is a very lengthy and expensive process."
The device is a yellow box with a computer microprocessor inside, and also a tiny heater that will allow it to work in temperatures below -40 C. It has GPS technology and the ability to transmit a tight signal that can help search-and-rescue teams locate a downed plane faster.
The 406 MHz unit replaces older technology that operated on the 121.5 and 243 MHz frequencies, which would transmit a signal over a 50-kilometre radius. "So it produced a huge search pattern," McPherson says. The problem was there was no way of knowing who the beacon belonged to and no way of checking to see if was a false signal. Consequently, it could lead to costly false search-and-rescue operations, McPherson said.
Cospas-Sarat, the international United Nations-run program that provides distress alert and location data via satellites, stopped listening to the 121.5 and 243 MHz frequencies in 2000, but commercial aircraft will still tune in to the old signals, and if they detect one, a search-and-rescue base is notified, McPherson says
The newer digital 406 MHz technology narrows the search to an area of two or three kilometres. The built-in GPS allows rescuers to pinpoint the location more quickly. The new beacons also are programmed with a unique code that is assigned to individual aircraft and aircraft owners. In Canada, the information is stored at the Canadian Beacon Registry.
When a signal is detected with the new technology, "all they have to do is pick up the phone and call the emergency contact," McPherson says. If the contact person is reached and there is no emergency, resources aren't wasted on a false search, he says.
"It is not just a matter of saving money, but also the fact that those men and women are putting their lives on the line every time they go out on a mission," he says. "If a number of those missions are false and they are flying in terrible weather, they are risking their lives, for what?"
The new technology is not mandatory in private aircraft, McPherson says. There are about 30,000 private aircraft in Canada and about 225,000 in the United States, and the vast majority have yet to covert to the new technology. The units cost about $1,000 to $2,000, which doesn't sound like a lot, but people will tend to put off spending money on something that isn't as "sexy" as, for example, a new flight display, he says.
Pointer's units come with a USB port, to make it easy to download software or to service them. That also allows the company to update its database of information on units in use. That database can be useful to search and rescue teams because a lot of people will buy units and not bother to resister them, or they move across the country and forget to register their new contact information.
Pointer sells its products to avionics shops across North America and beyond, and directly to private aircraft owners. Customers also can order through the company's website.
The units are geared to aircraft, but McPherson says developing similar products for the marine market is a possibility. "We are busy enough now that we want to concentrate on getting this technology out in a timely fashion to our customers," he says. "But when we have time, we might move on to adapting it to the boat owners."
As a boy, McPherson loved airplanes. Now, he runs a company that makes a product that will fly with the pilots and potentially save their lives. Better still, it's being done right here in Canada.
"We designed it, we built it and we are shipping it all over the world, so that makes me proud."