VTDigger: Small company lands large helicopter tech contract

March 13 2019

VTDigger reported on GPMS’s recent success negotiating an exclusive distribution agreement with Bell. The article was originally published here.

Making it in Vermont: Small company lands large helicopter tech contract
By Anne Wallace Allen

A technology business in Cornwall has landed a major distribution agreement with the helicopter company Bell.

Under the agreement, Bell will market and sell a system made by Green Power Monitoring Systems, or GPMS, a six-person company started in Vermont in 2013 by Eric Bechhoefer and Jack Taylor. The two founders are aeronautical engineers who were separately drawn to Vermont by technology industry jobs.

GPMS makes health and usage monitoring systems, or HUMS — software and hardware that collects and transmits information about wear and tear and potential problems on aircraft in flight. While public and private researchers have been developing HUMS since around the 1990s, the technology is expensive and is not standard on aircraft. The GPMS technology is also made for use on agricultural equipment.
The GPMS system enables the people who maintain and operate aircraft to log into a website and see details about the condition of the moving parts on the equipment. Jed Kalkstein, the company’s president, said it saved time and money for a GPMS customer from North Carolina who ran into problems a few weeks ago with a helicopter in Indiana.

“The pilot reported low power on the engine, which normally would trigger the maintainer jumping on a plane, flying to Indiana, and testing the engine to see what was going on,” Kalkstein said. “Because they had our system, he was able to pull it up from his home base and look at some of the data and realize that the problem was because this was during the polar vortex, and it was minus 21.”

The extremely low temperature was reducing engine power, Kalkstein said.

“That’s an expected result, and he was able to diagnose that from hundreds of miles away.”

The GPMS system will go on the popular Bell 407 helicopter, a craft used in dozens of countries. There are nearly 1,500 Bell 407s operating now in corporate, air ambulance, and military settings, said Blakeley Thress, a spokesperson for Bell in Fort Worth, Texas. Bell is also competing with other aircraft manufacturers to create autonomous aircraft.

In a press release, Bell called the GPMS system, known as Foresight, “the industry’s first true predictive health management system for helicopters and rotating industrial equipment.”

The deal with Bell represents a big step forward for GPMS, which is based at Bechhoefer’s home in Cornwall. The five other staff members all work remotely — Kalkstein from his home in Waitsfield and Taylor in Los Angeles.

Bechhoefer moved to Vermont in 2000 to work at Goodrich, now UTC Aerospace Systems, in Vergennes, Kalkstein said. There he met Taylor, and both later moved to NRG, a wind energy technology company in Hinesburg. The founders raised capital for their new venture from angel investors in and outside of Vermont and from industry investors in Oregon, Texas and Florida, Kalkstein said.

The product is manufactured at Microwire Transmission Systemsin Essex. Microwire, one of many small aviation companies in Vermont, has AS9100 certification, a quality management system that is widely used in the aerospace industry.

“That’s really one of the requirements,” said Kalkstein. “That is necessary to get the FAA certification.”

The technology behind aircraft monitoring systems has been in development for years. The GPMS system competes favorably to competitors, Kalkstein said, because it’s easier to use, less expensive, and much lighter. And it’s the only such product that enables technicians to estimate the remaining useful life of a component that is showing signs of wear, he said.

“The hardware installed on a helicopter gathers this data, and processes the data, and then, importantly, presents it in a really simple way, so it’s taking really complicated questions about the current state of the aircraft and distilling them down to basically a stoplight for maintainers. It takes out a lot of guesswork,” Kalkstein said.

Product capabilities vary greatly, said Ashish Bagai, an aerospace engineer who works as a consultant in Virginia. “In a broad sense, HUMS can mean a lot of different things,” he said. “Different levels of complexity go along with it, from automated to fully artificially intelligent making decisions.”

Bagai said the predictive nature of such equipment can help aircraft owners determine how much life they have left on a component before it needs to be replaced or inspected.

“The idea here is that it’s not just savings, safety and the ability to complete your mission,” he said.

GPMS is also working on monitoring equipment for other industries that use rotors. He said the company has test projects in nuclear power plant pumps in Michigan and on marine cranes in Norway, and are talking to a company that makes earth-moving equipment about uses there.

“There are so many applications it kind of makes your head spin. We get inquiries all the time,” Kalkstein said.

GPMS didn’t have a marketable product until it received its FAA certification in March 2018, Kalkstein said, and it’s not making money now. Kalkstein didn’t release many details about how the Bell contract had changed the company’s financial outlook, though he said he expected GPMS to open an office, maybe in Williston, and to hire more engineers.

“We’re really just getting to the point where we are hitting our stride,” he said. “The Bell announcement is a big event for us because it represents a validation from one of the largest helicopter manufacturers in the world. They did an exhaustive search. They have been talking about having a system like this on the Bell 407 for many, many years.”

The Vermont Chamber of Commerce has worked hard to promote the state as a destination for aerospace companies. Aerospace makes up about 2 percent of Vermont’s GDP and employs 9,500 people, with annual earnings of $300 million, according to the Chamber.
“There are these corners of Vermont with so many aerospace companies nestled in these buildings,” Kalkstein said.

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