Netplex Company on Olympic Team

AAI of Hunt Valley, Md., hopes to balance its revenues by participating in the Summer Games

A strategic partnership between Science Applications International Corp., Georgia Tech and a little-known company from the Netplex is helping the city of Atlanta ease congestion problems associated with the influx of six million visitors.

More than a year ago, when the Atlanta Vertical Flight Association and the Helicopter Association International began developing a battle plan to tackle Atlanta's imminent influx of visitors, AAI ? a high-tech developer based in Hunt Valley, Md. ? recognized a unique marketing opportunity.

AAI officials heard of Atlanta's challenge through Federal Aviation Administration announcements and later offered to donate a weather observation system it had developed under contract with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Today, the one-time weather system is providing surveillance and communications support at this summer's Olympic games. AAI's role is to provide real-time weather reports to helicopter pilots over a discreet VHF frequency using computer-generated voice or dial-up communications.

AAI's system, known as Next Generation Weather Observation System, provides critical information about temperature, winds, visibility and cloud height, which is relayed to commercial and military pilots.

Helicopters participating in the portion of the FAA project, known as Operation Heli-Star, will be equipped with global positioning system technology that will enable FAA air traffic controllers to track the helicopters on a computer-based ground station. Cockpit displays in the helicopters will depict real-time air traffic and weather data in text and graphic form.

Data link technology will enable direct communication between the aircraft and the control center at Georgia Tech Research Institute.

"We opened up participation to companies that wanted to work with us, sometimes at their own expense," said Rick Weiss, manager of the general aviation and vertical flight program for the FAA.

By incorporating AAI's technology into the Atlanta project, the FAA had paired up the little-known Netplex company with sizable integrators.

The FAA had earlier selected SAIC as prime contractor for a giant transportation systems integration project that is responsible for performing research, data collection and analysis of the city's transportation operations. Georgia Tech received a $10 million grant from the FAA to produce a report on the results of the project.

Chuck Stancil, chief of advanced transportation systems branch, aerospace sciences laboratory, Georgia Tech Research Institute, said companies donated $6 million worth of free equipment to support the project.

"This is the first time this system has ever been done before," said Stancil. "After this is over, industry will benefit. There is a new market potential for [short haul transportation systems]."

"We hope the experience will generate sales from the other companies participating with us in the project," said Ralph Petragnani, marketing manager of AAI.

AAI currently has a contract with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that run until 1998.

It also supplies the FAA, the National Weather Service, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force with its Automated Surface Observing Systems - the company's government term for the system it donated for use at the Olympics.

Under the contract, ASOS is used at Washington-Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Va., Washington's National Airport in Arlington, Va., Baltimore-Washington International Airport in Baltimore, and 600 other airports in the United States.

As a result of the success with the ASOS, AAI developed NEXWOS for the commercial marketplace.

The system was designed in 1994 and certified by the FAA in 1995.

AAI specializes in weather observation systems technology. The $250 million company generates 90 percent of its revenues from the FAA, the National Weather Service and the U.S. Air Force.

Petragnani could not speculate on how the company's role in the Olympics will affect company revenues.

However, Operation Heli-Star is a way for the FAA to show off the technology to the rest of the world and create a marketplace for it.

"The FAA feels many cities will be interested in this transportation system," said Petragnani. "We saw this as an opportunity, and of course the publicity doesn't hurt."

Weiss says the Olympics created the need for the system, and the FAA created an affordable infrastructure.

"We looked at this project as seed money for the future. Transportation is still a social need," said Weiss, who has been with the FAA for 15 years.

"There is nothing stopping the helicopter field from moving this technology into the marketplace."

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