Friday September 25, 2020

Getting an airline communication system off the ground in real-time

Aviation tech start-up Frequency aims to improve communication methods for airlines with a new internet-based system

13th September, 2020
Justin Perry, founder of Frequency: the start-up has just closed a €600,000 seed funding round. Photo: Fergal Phillips

The grounding of the global airline industry is not too much of a concern for Justin Perry, whose aviation tech start-up Frequency has just closed a €600,000 seed funding round.

The 33-year-old pilot recently took a sabbatical from Aer Lingus to focus solely on developing the product, an internet-based communication system for the aviation sector.

Perry founded Frequency in early 2018 Darach Ó Comhraí and Kris Vansteenkiste, both fellow Aer Lingus pilots.

The idea for the start-up was born out of their own frustration using outdated systems for critical communication with their colleagues in line maintenance and operations control.

“When you think of aviation, the perception is that it’s generally at the forefront of technology but, in terms of communications, we are decades behind. We thought ‘there has to be a better way to do this’,” Perry said.

The Frequency system combines VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) and multimedia technology to allow airline crews to communicate with ground staff in real-time.

“It’s a combination of Skype and WhatsApp with a bit of Microsoft Teams thrown in,” Perry said.

“You can install the software on mobile phones or tablets and use it to call colleagues or send text messages with files and photos attached, which is critical when you’re talking to engineers.”

Perry sees Frequency as a more efficient alternative to the internal communication systems currently used by airlines.

These range from high-frequency radios, mobile, landline and satellite phones to ACARS, the system commonly used by airline crews to send short messages to ground stations.

“Ultimately, it’s about efficiency. The easier it is for everyone to communicate when there is an issue, the more quickly it can be resolved and the higher the likelihood that flight delays can be avoided or shortened,” Perry said.

“When airlines get back up and running, efficiency will be critical. It will be one of the major factors that sets one airline apart from another, so it will come down to competitive advantage.”

Frequency has been in development for the past two years and, in that time, has received funding and grant support of about €160,000 from sources including Fingal Local Enterprise Office, Propeller Shannon, the European Space Agency and Enterprise Ireland, the state agency.

The start-up’s newly closed €600,000 seed round will allow Perry, Ó Comhraí and Vansteenkiste to begin the next phase of development.

“It’s taken us two years to develop the technology so far,” Perry, who is originally from Sutton in north Dublin, said.

“Starting off, we just wanted VoIP. Then we decided to incorporate a messenger system for sending text, photos and files. We trialled last year with Aer Lingus and, based on their feedback, we realised we needed to incorporate a collaboration system along the lines of Microsoft Teams. That’s what we’ve been working on for the past year.”

The collaboration tool will be key to the start-up’s commercial launch, Perry said.

“It will really facilitate real-time communication between an airline’s operations control centre and all of the various individuals on a team that need to be in contact to resolve an issue. It will take us from an MVP [minimum viable product] to a commercial product,” he said.

Participants in Frequency’s seed fund included Zoosh Ventures and Enterprise Ireland. The start-up also raised €150,000 through Spark Crowdfunding.

Perry said the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on global aviation had yielded an unexpected benefit for the start-up.

“Covid has crippled aviation. It has absolutely smashed the sector, but for us what we’re seeing strangely enough is a net positive outcome,” he said.

“Last year, when we were trying to start a conversation with airlines, they didn’t have the time to talk to us. They were just out-the-door busy. Now, they’ve got time. They’re much more open to talking about new technologies and processes.

“We expect to have our product market-ready in the first or second quarter of next year. Hopefully, at that stage, we’ll be starting to see the market ramp up again for the summer.”

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