The Business Herald’s markets and banking reporter.

Aircraft tracking system sales take off

NZ firm Spidertracks has sold 4000 of the devices to commercial and recreational aviation customers.

Commercial customers in New Zealand included Ravensdown Aerowork. Photo / Bevan Conley
Commercial customers in New Zealand included Ravensdown Aerowork. Photo / Bevan Conley

The search for missing alcohol baron Michael Erceg stretched on for weeks back in 2005.

The Independent Liquor founder had been flying his Eurocopter from Auckland to Queenstown with one passenger on board, Dutch brewery executive Guus Klatte, when the pair flew into clouds and crashed into a grove of trees near Mt Karioi, in the Waikato.

While the aircraft's emergency beacon sent out some 3000 messages, none was received because its aerial had been broken in the crash.

It took two weeks to locate the wreckage and the bodies of Erceg and Klatte, who were thought to have been killed on impact.

An official search cost $815,000, while a private search by Erceg's family racked up 975 hours of flying time in 31 helicopters at a cost of $1.5 million.

It prompted James McCarthy and a group of friends in Palmerston North to devise a practical and affordable way to keep track of aircraft.

What they came up with was the Spider, a device which continuously sends information including GPS location, airspeed and altitude - via the Iridium satellite network - to a website, meaning an aircraft can be quickly located following a crash.

Spidertracks, the company set up to commercialise the technology, has now sold 4000 of the devices to around 1500 commercial and recreational aviation customers in 80 countries, said operations manager Dave Blackwell.

He said Spidertracks was experiencing year-on-year sales growth of around 70 per cent. "We've undergone some rapid growth in these first years of the business."

Blackwell said roughly 60 per cent of Spidertracks' customers were commercial aviation operators, with recreational pilots making up the balance.

"We're targeting general aviation - anybody that's not a commercial airline, really," he said.

"That ranges from tour operators to crop dusting operations to search and rescue."

Blackwell said commercial customers in New Zealand included crop dusters Ravensdown Aerowork and national helicopter operator HeliPro.

Overseas clients include Sundance Helicopters in the United States, which uses the technology in areas such as the Grand Canyon, and Australia's Heliwest Group.

There are now three Spider devices on the market, which range in price from US$995 to US$1795.

After purchasing the device users buy a data plan that covers tracking, which ranges in price from US$15 to US$250 a month depending on flying hours.

Blackwell said there had been "several instances" in North America where devices had been used to locate aircraft, and the technology had proved successful in those cases.

"We've got a large presence in North America but we're reasonably distributed through Australasia and Africa," he said. "We're looking towards Asia in the next five years as a growth area."

Blackwell said the first Spider customer, Bruce Bartley, had been so impressed by the device that he invested in the company in 2007 and remains a 30 per cent shareholder and director of the firm.

Sir Stephen Tindall's K1W1 fund also holds a 16.6 per cent stake in the firm, while interests associated with McCarthy own a 47.7 per cent shareholding.

The company has 12 staff in New Zealand and the United States.

- NZ Herald

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