Spidertracks: Putting safety first

Avatar for Ben ForrestBen Forrest | November 29, 2022

Estimated reading time 8 minutes, 29 seconds.

At around 9:45 a.m. on a cloudy November day in 2005, a prominent New Zealand businessman piloted an executive helicopter from an Auckland suburb toward the city of Wanganui, planning to carry one passenger to Queenstown, with two fuel stops along the way. 

They did not make it far. The helicopter crashed and was found just 11 kilometers (seven miles) from the take-off site after a 15-day search. Neither the pilot nor the passenger survived, and the search is considered one of the most inefficient rescue missions in New Zealand history.

According to media reports, the pilot did not have an instrument flight rules rating and was flying in low-visibility conditions. It’s believed he crashed the helicopter into treetops he did not see until it was too late. 

In the crash, the aerial on the helicopter’s locator beacon broke, and none of the 3,000 messages it reportedly sent were picked up. A tree canopy covered the crash site, making it harder to find.

As they watched this tragedy and its aftermath unfold, a pair of New Zealand engineers wondered how such a thing could happen. In the first decade of the 21st century, why was there no failsafe technology on board to pinpoint the aircraft’s final location?

How could anyone justify the cost of the search — an estimated $8 million — as well as the emotional toll on families who spent more than two weeks wondering if their loved ones survived?

The engineers set about trying to ensure this kind of thing never happened again. 

They developed a flight tracking device called a Spider that would continuously broadcast the location of an aircraft every few minutes during flight, and they started a company — Spidertracks — to manufacture the devices and make them commercially available.

If Spiders were in use, search-and-rescue teams would know the approximate location of the aircraft and could quickly locate it. 

Today, Spiders are used in thousands of aircraft around the world. 

Back view from the inside of the plane, couple in aviation headsets is ready to fly

“We come from humble beginnings,” said Zandri Banks, chief experience officer of Spidertracks. “We came from a couple of young, smart people looking at a tragedy and going, ‘Surely this shouldn’t happen. How can we prevent this from happening?’” 

Spiders enable rescue workers to immediately map what’s known as a “golden circle” — an accurate search area with a small radius — which they can attend quickly and hopefully save lives. 

“It’s just a small New Zealand company, and we’ve been serving the aviation community for 15 years,” Banks said. “Even though we were born to track an aircraft and to know the last location, we’ve moved into delivering more data off the aircraft so that we can prevent accidents from occurring.”

Indeed, Spidertracks today is much more than a flight tracking company. 

The latest Spider hardware — known as the Spider X — is a lightweight device that automatically collects and wirelessly transmits attitude and heading reference system (AHRS) data throughout a flight, in addition to delivering a high-definition flight track. 

“Instead of just knowing the position, you actually know how [the aircraft is] being flown as well,” Banks said. “Pitch up, pitch down, excessive roll, excessive bank — those kinds of maneuvers.” 

Operators can use this additional data to identify pilot habits and address them through training. The goal is to proactively improve pilot performance and avoid disaster.

Spider X users can also access high-definition, three-dimensional full-flight replay with a 360-degree view of the aircraft, helping them understand flight conditions on a granular level.

“A lot of value gets delivered from having this level of detail around your flight, because operators cannot be in the aircraft each time,” Banks said. “We have customers in firefighting, recreation, flight training and air ambulance. And because our product is so versatile, you can customize it to your own vertical.”

As Spidertracks celebrates its 15th anniversary, the company remains focused on its core mission: To make the aviation industry safer every day. 

“We actually live and breathe it, as opposed to just being some writing on the wall,” Banks said. “We’ve focused on improving safety above all else, because that is where our mission is.”

As a relatively small tech start-up with just 36 employees, Spidertracks has retained the close-knit culture it started out with. The company operates more as a family than as a group of colleagues. And by avoiding siloed workflows and bureaucratic processes, it prides itself on being nimble and adaptive, continuously improving to meet the industry’s needs.

“The go-forward strategy is all about layering more value into the product and connecting to more inside the aircraft,” Banks said. “Every day, our customers are faced with the decision around, ‘Am I going to save money or am I going to be safer?’ We want to give them the ability to do both. So that’s really the way forward — looking at how can we enable our operators to save money and to be safer at the end of the day.”  

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