P.E.I. pilot invents important monitor for small aircraft

A P.E.I. pilot with a love of flying and a talent for developing software has combined those skills to create a new, important piece of aircraft equipment called a Canairy cockpit monitor, which sends tracking information for small planes to the ground.

Cockpit monitor sends tracking signals back to ground, as most small planes don't have tracking devices

Pilot and developer Chris VanHorn installs one of his Canairy cockpit monitors. (CBC)

A P.E.I. pilot with a love of flying and a talent for developing software has combined those skills to create a new, important piece of aircraft equipment.

It's called a Canairy cockpit monitor, created by the P.E.I.-based company Airbly, run by Chris VanHorn.

It was developed for small aircraft, sits on top of the instrument panel in the cockpit, and sends a signal via satellite to a laptop, smart phone or tablet on the ground.

"Small aviation aircraft don't have any kind of tracking device," explained Van Horn, "and additionally most of them are managed using paper logbooks and spread sheets which is very time consuming."

The Canairy cockpit monitor, in its current canary yellow, can be removed from the plane if the pilot has to abandon it. (CBC)
There's also an important safety element when the monitor is installed.

Serves as locator

"The additional benefit is if there is an incident, you can track the aircraft and at least know its last known location," said VanHorn. "The product is also removable so if there's an incident and you have to leave the aircraft on the ground, you can take it with you and use it as a locating beacon."

VanHorn started developing the monitor a year and a half ago, helped by a background in computer science, and the pilot's licence he got five years ago.

But that didn't mean a smooth take off for the device.

"It's been quite a roller-coaster," he admitted. "If you saw our first prototype, you'd be like, what is that pile of junk?"

Colour correction

The name Canairy came from the saying "canary in a coal mine," because the device also detects any carbon monoxide in the cockpit.

Easy to install, the monitor sits on the dash of any plane, sending its signals via satellite to the ground. (CBC)
But the canary yellow it's painted is going to have to be changed, after pilot testing revealed a problem.

"We put it in a couple of aircraft down in Portland, Maine, and they're different models of aircraft from the ones that we've tested in," said VanHorn. "And we found out that the angle of the windshield on one of those aircraft caused the bright yellow box to show up as a big glare. So we'll be changing that colour to a grey or black."

Help for flight schools

Paul Tymstra of Huron Flight Centre Atlantic has also been testing the Airbly monitor.

The device can help flight schools, he said, by tracking students on solo flights.

"They can keep track easily of where their students are or their pilots at any given moment," said Tymstra. "Transport Canada is always on us, on keeping track of where our students are. So it's very good. I think every airplane should have one."

Originally from New Jersey, Chris VanHorn moved to P.E.I. five years ago. (CBC)
The Airbly monitor sells for $349 U.S. plus a monthly fee for satellite services.

The company will produce its first 100 units next month, just in time for North America's biggest aviation show, in Osh Kosh, Wis.

"Hopefully it will take off and we'll grow from there," said VanHorn.