AUGUSTA — A little black box developed by two local men could help prevent airplane crashes at small regional airports by recording what has been unknowable until now.
John Guimond, manager of the Augusta State Airport, began to develop the idea after a crash in which three young men were killed when the plane they were in collided with a truck crossing a runway Nov. 16, 2012, at the Knox County Regional Airport in Owls Head. Guimond spoke to the airport’s manager, Jeffrey Northgraves, about the frustration of not being able to investigate what caused the crash by listening to radio transmissions from either the plane or the truck’s driver, who is a pilot and was crossing the runway.
Those radio transmission recordings couldn’t be heard because they didn’t exist. There was no system to record them at the airport, nor is there any such system at most of the thousands of smaller general aviation airports around the world without control towers.
“At general aviation airports, it’s not recorded, so you never really know who said what on the radio,” said Guimond, of Fairfield. “We thought there has got to be a way to capture that.”
There wasn’t, but now there is.
G.A.R.D, or General Audio Recording Device, was created and developed by Guimond’s business partner, Ron Cote, of West Gardiner, through their new commercial venture, Invisible Intelligence LLC.
The system, most of which is contained within a 3-by-3-by-1-inch black box, records all radio transmissions at airports where it is installed. Those radio transmissions often can help investigators understand what caused a crash. And that knowledge, in turn, can help prevent future, similar crashes.
“If there has been an incident now, all investigators can do, at a general aviation airport, is look at what’s there,” Guimond said. “With this, you can go back and listen to the radio of the pilot and of ground vehicles. You can hear the demeanor of the people and their words. With that kind of information, maybe we could prevent another one from happening.”
Guimond explained the problem one day over lunch to Cote, an amateur radio operator since he was 12. Within about a week of working on it at his rural camp, he had a prototype. They took their device to Northgraves, who loved it, and the airport in Rockland became the first to install the new device.
Ted Talbot, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, said DOT officials believe in the device so much the state agency will pay for 50 percent of the cost of installing G.A.R.D at any of the 42 publicly owned airports in Maine.
Talbot said not knowing what was broadcast over the radio in the Owls Head collision bothers DOT officials, and they hope the new device can fill in such gaps and help prevent similar accidents.
“Well, we’ll never know what happened, and that doesn’t sit well with our safety folks,” Talbot said.
“That’s really what spurred this effort. When this came to us, we had this sense of urgency to really address what has been lacking at these airports. And that’s accountability of aircraft. We’re very excited about it. It’s not just the first in Maine; it’s the first of its kind in the nation.”
Cote, who works for the DOT as an electrical supervisor in traffic engineering, and Guimond, manager of the city-operated, state-owned Augusta State Airport, both said they developed their device and business on their own time, at night and during vacations, with the knowledge of their bosses. Talbot said the DOT vetted the issue and is comfortable that Cote developed the device on his own time.
They both recently returned from presenting information on the device to airport officials in New Hampshire, have a similar trip planned to Massachusetts, and Federal Aviation Administration officials have also expressed interest in G.A.R.D., which, depending on how much computer hardware comes with it, ranges in cost from $2,000 to $3,200.
“At the end of our presentation in New Hampshire, they said it was a really neat product and said they couldn’t believe the price. They’d figured it was going to cost maybe $15,000 to $20,000,” said Cote, 47. “But we’re not out to maximize income on this. John and I’s attitude is we want to see one in every airport (to improve safety), so we wanted to keep the price doable.”
The pair, and Talbot, said beyond crash investigations, the device is also helpful for training. Guimond said it already has been helpful for that at the Augusta State Airport. He said he monitors radio traffic with the device, and when he recently heard a maintenance worker giving unclear radio transmissions about what runway he was on with a pickup truck, he met with the employee to talk about ways he could make his transmissions more precise. That’s especially important to pilots who may be landing and would need to know where a maintenance vehicle is if it’s out on the airport grounds.
The devices are now in five airports in Maine, including the Robert LaFleur Airport in Waterville, where it has been in place for a few months. And if Randy Marshall Jr., manager of the city-operated airport in Waterville, has his way, the device will be a permanent addition.
“Having had it, I can’t imagine not having it,” Marshall said. “It’s genius. It has got multiple, positive uses we’ve found to be beneficial. It’s a great training tool. We’re trying to make sure we’re operating a safe practice here, and this is just another critical tool to make sure we’re doing that.”
The device records just radio transmissions — not the silence in between transmissions. Users can find transmission recordings from specific time frames on a computer without having to listen to an entire day’s worth of dead air.
A feature added after the initial development is the ability to count airport traffic and distinguish between ground vehicles and planes. Guimond, 52, said that is key information for operations planning at an airport, because it lets officials know when planes come and go from airports, how many planes use airports that are often unstaffed after business hours, and plan staffing using that data.
The pair said they’ve also gotten interest from other, non-airport fields, including a fire chief who wanted to use the device to record radio traffic for training firefighters.
The device is being manufactured by AMI in Winthrop.
More information about it is available online at www.invisibleintelligencellc.com, or on their Facebook page.
Guimond said the easiest part of launching the business so far seems to be the actual creation of the device. They have an attorney working to patent their invention, are looking into working with Maine Technology Institute to seek grant funding, have worked with the Service Corps of Retired Executives on their business plan, and have worked with the University of Maine School of Law on research to ensure no other device already exists that does the same thing.
They said the only similar device they came across was a device that counts airport traffic by sensing the noise planes make. However, that device only provides a count of comings and goings and does not record radio transmissions at all.
Cote, an Augusta native, said they have yet to have an airport they’ve showed it to say they didn’t want the G.A.R.D.
“We’re a 7-month old company, and we’re now interviewing for a staff person to handle all the calls and hits we’re already getting,” Guimond said. “For a couple of Maine boys to come up with this idea and build a company from the ground up has been a great experience for us.”
Keith Edwards — 621-5647