features Always connected: Flightcell International

Flightcell International is helping helicopter operators do their job as efficiently and safely as possible by staying ahead of the technological curve.
Avatar By Dayna Fedy | January 9, 2020

Estimated reading time 8 minutes, 35 seconds.

Achieving cellular and satellite connectivity from the cockpit at 4,000 feet (1,220 meters) might have once seemed like a daunting task for service providers, especially in remote locations. But as technology has progressed, not only have satellite and cellular connectivity become possible (as separate entities) in aircraft, but pilots can now access voice, data and aircraft tracking software simultaneously from one piece of hardware. The hardware in question, DZMx, is produced by Flightcell International of Nelson, New Zealand, and it’s what the company is best known for.

The DZMx device ensures a network is always available. If the aircraft flies out of cellular network coverage, the DZMx auto-switches to the next best option, which is Iridium satellite. Flightcell Photo

“[DZMx] is unlike any other product in this area because it’s a product platform, not a product,” said Michael Eddy, marketing and communications manager at Flightcell. “The DZMx has over 60 different product variants and configurations that customers can order; we built it specifically like that, so it can be flexible.”

The idea behind the company came simply from necessity. Flightcell’s founder and CEO, John Wyllie, who is also a helicopter pilot, became frustrated one day in the mid-1990s because he could not use his cellphone while flying. In a humble workshop environment with the drive to create a solution, he developed the first cellphone-to-headset interface, which he called “Flightcell.” The product has since evolved into the Flightcell DZM systems and inspired other products like the rugged alloy Iridium Satellite Phone Cradle.

Flightcell provides satellite and cellular communications and tracking primarily to first responders and military branches in North America, Europe and Australasia, targeting the larger turbine rotary-wing airframes that are operated in these sectors.

Built for longevity

The DZMx initially started as the DZM1, evolving into models 2 and 3, and finally the “X.” Eddy said the “X” model is here to stay, because the hardware has been designed to be updated as often as needed “to keep up with technology, trends, and customer requirements. It’s an evolving platform with longevity.”

Flightcell International provides satellite and cellular communications and tracking primarily to first responders and military operators. Its DZMx system allows pilots to access voice, data and aircraft tracking software simultaneously from one piece of hardware. Flightcell Photo

The DZMx is microprocessor-controlled, with modular hardware boards and SIM card slots that can slip in and out of the device to utilize the satellite and cellular networks. Flightcell wanted to ensure that operators would not be tied to one particular service provider with the DZMx, so the company has partnered with a list of network and tracking service providers. “We’re completely vendor-agnostic,” said Eddy. “It’s a real strength . . . if an operator sees a benefit of another mapping service, there is nothing to stop them signing up to it.”

Essentially, Flightcell gives a software development kit to its partner service providers, and the end users can choose any provider they like.

Eddy said this form of flexibility comes in handy when operators want to standardize the software in their fleets. “For example, a customer could have 10 helicopters and they’ve all got Blue Sky Network’s hardware in them. Then they get two new helicopters from Leonardo that have DZMxs in them . . . they can still track that DZMx using the Blue Sky system.”

Leonardo offers the DZMx as a factory option, though the device can be installed in virtually any helicopter type. The most common airframes that use the DZMx are the turbine and multi-role aircraft used by search-and-rescue (SAR), EMS, fire and law enforcement operators.

The DZMx unit is relatively small (4.95 inches wide), and there are usually only minor modifications required for installation. Flightcell Photo

While the device is relatively small (only 4.95 inches/12.6 centimeters wide), there are usually only minor modifications required for installation, and a supplemental type certificate is not needed. Installation typically includes the DZMx in the cockpit, a remote head unit in the cabin, a cellular antenna on the bottom of the airframe, and a satellite antenna on the top of the airframe.

Based on an operator’s field of service, different customizations can be made to the device to suit various requirements, such as adding Iridium push-to-talk, a second Ethernet port, or additional inputs. A firefighting aircraft may, for example, require additional inputs to report bucket loads during operations.

The most common customization, Eddy said, is the number of satellite and cellular transceivers that are included on the DZMx. “Most customers will order one satellite and one cellular modem, so they can have the best of both worlds,” he said. “So, if they don’t want to use cellular networks, they can have two simultaneous satellite calls . . . and likewise for cellular.”

As a night vision-compliant device, the DZMx also has different night vision display options (A or B) that operators can choose from based on preference. “The U.S. military tends to prefer night vision A, [and] everyone else has night vision B,” said Eddy.

Flightcell refers to the DZMx as a product platform, rather than a product, as the company gives a software development kit to its partner service providers and the end users can choose any provider they like. Flightcell Photo

The U.S. military is among a list of large industry players around the world that use Flightcell’s DZMx, including the California Highway Patrol, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), Texas Department of Public Safety, Australia’s Royal Flying Doctors, and the Chilean and Korean air forces.

Among the nearly 4,000 DZMx devices installed in aircraft around the world, there are over 60 versions of the platform when factoring in the numerous customization options.

Sector support

Helicopters play a wide and vital role in first responder operations, which include law enforcement, fire, SAR and helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS). While rotorcraft already offer time-saving benefits over ground vehicles, the DZMx can expand the efficiency of these operations further — a major reason why the device is so largely used in first responder sectors.

HEMS operators can use the DZMx to call and coordinate with hospitals for patient transfers, communicate with people who are with casualties on the ground, administer basic first aid over the phone before arrival, and coordinate with SAR operators.

“We’ve had instances where people have been lost, they still had cell phone coverage, but they were in the middle of a forest. . . . The helicopter pilots told the people who were lost to direct the helicopter over top of them [over the phone],” said Eddy.

The California Highway Patrol operates the DZMx in its Airbus H125 AStars. In total, there are nearly 4,000 DZMx devices installed in aircraft around the world. Skip Robinson Photo

In a medical helicopter, the DZMx proves valuable in saving time when minutes matter. Eddy said as far as the company is aware, it’s the first to prove that data from an electrocardiography (ECG) machine can be sent from a helicopter to a hospital; the DZMx is able to provide a hotspot for the medical monitor using built-in WiFi.

“If you’re in an ambulance getting driven to the hospital, they can send [the patient’s] ECG rhythm back [to the hospital], and then they can start preparing and get the cardiac team ready to receive the patient,” said Eddy. “Whereas the helicopter usually has to land and then give the ambulance the print out from the medical monitor.

“You’re losing precious minutes of preparation time, which could save people’s lives. So, we can do that from a helicopter now.”

Medical helicopters also typically have a DZMx in the cockpit and a remote head unit in the cabin, so the medical crews can make phone calls at the same time as the pilot.

With weather always being a major flight planning and safety factor — for any pilot — the DZMx device ensures a network is always available to check weather in-flight using a cellular internet connection, or look at an alternate landing zone map if necessary. If the aircraft flies out of cellular network coverage, the DZMx continues tracking and operating by auto-switching to the next best option, which is Iridium satellite.

Cal Fire is one of many operators that uses DZMx. The device is capable of tracking the location and volume of water picked up and released by an aircraft, and the identification of the bucket or tank being used, among other features. Skip Robinson Photo

The auto-switching coverage comes in handy in the aerial firefighting sector — especially in North America and Australia where automated flight following requirements have been implemented. The DZMx is capable of tracking the exact flight path of an aircraft, the location and volume of water picked up and released, and the identification of the bucket or tank being used, among other features.

A company of just 18 employees, Flightcell covers a lot of ground. “We’re very small, but we do a lot,” said Eddy. “The people who design the hardware also provide the [customer] support.” But to widen its global reach, the company has roughly 30 resellers of its products worldwide.

While continuing to grow, Flightcell is remaining focused on its ability to stay ahead of the technological curve, and help operators in the industry do their job as efficiently and safely as possible.

“By not offering services, it allows us to focus on the hardware and the software inside the [DZMx] unit itself,” said Eddy. “We feel we’ve got a unique product; it’s quite unlike anything else.”

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