Blue Sky Network Finds Markets Beyond Aviation for Satellite-Based Technology

Jon Gilbert says when he started the Blue Sky Network in 2001, he saw an opportunity to combine his passion for aviation (he’s a pilot) with his experience in telematics—technology that combines communications, GPS tracking, and informatics.

Gilbert had gained his experience as the CEO at Boatracs, a small San Diego company that had licensed Qualcomm technology to provide tracking and data communications for maritime vessels. In essence Boatracs‘ business model was a seafaring version of Omnitracs, the telematics business that Qualcomm developed for long-haul truck fleets—and which helped sustain Qualcomm during its early years, when it was developing its digital wireless technology.

(As in other areas of wireless technology, Qualcomm’s early role in telematics seems to have spawned a number of San Diego startups developing related technologies. Network Fleet co-founder Diego Borrego says the list includes DriveCam, Vehiclepath, Air-Trak, Procon, Calamp, and Quake in San Diego, Carlsbad, CA-based Sierra Wireless, Novatel’s recent acquisition of Enfora.)

The opportunity Gilbert saw a decade ago coincided with the resurrection of Iridium Communications, the satellite-based wireless communications company that Motorola and others spent $6 billion building—and which a group of investors acquired in 2001 for $25 million in a court-approved bankruptcy sale.

Gilbert says he met with Iridium chairman Dan Colussy, “and we kind of made a deal for me to build a [satellite-based communications product] that would work on the Iridium network and get it FAA certified.” Iridium, in turn, made it possible for Blue Sky to use Iridium’s satellite-based network and still compete economically with AT&T.

In 2003, Gilbert says Iridium realized that data—rather than voice communications—would be the long-term play, and came up with a technique to “kind of spoof the Iridium network” to use a voice circuit connection to transmit short bursts of packet-based data. This enabled Gilbert to develop a GPS-enabled box that could be installed aboard aircraft. The combination of hardware and software used the Iridium network to transmit flight-tracking information, and provided a rudimentary kind of two-way communications.

That was enough for the Blue Sky Network to take off, Gilbert says. What most people usually don’t realize is that there is no easy way to track commercial aircraft as they fly across the oceans, deserts, and other remote areas. In providing that capability, Gilbert says Blue Sky was offering a significant innovation.

In the Gulf of Mexico, for example, he says some 30,000 people are employed on offshore oil platforms. Helicopters make an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 trips a week, ferrying people to and from the offshore rigs. Yet there is no air traffic control in the middle of the gulf, and no easy way to track the flights. “We came up with the concept of sending autonomous, GPS-embedded position reports at discrete time intervals to Iridium,” Gilbert says. The company created a Web-based display to show the location of the aircraft equipped with Blue Sky’s technology. Gilbert says the oil and gas industry embraced the technology, with many companies mandating that employees could not fly on aircraft in the gulf unless they were equipped with this GPS-based system.

Blue Sky adapted its technology for the U.S. Forest Service, which had similar problems with aircraft used to fight wildfires in remote areas throughout the United States. Over the past five years, Gilbert says Blue Sky has added additional features and functionality to its technology, including the ability to transmit flight plans, two-way text messaging, and a voice channel.

Gilbert says he self-funded Blue Sky’s initial operations and technology development. The company, which now has 15 employees in San Diego and Santa Barbara, CA) has been profitable for the past six years. “I get calls at least three times a month from VCs and M&A teams,” Gilbert says. “We don’t have any debt, and we don’t need the money, so it’s not a high priority these days.”

Gilbert says Blue Sky made its biggest strategy shift in 2005, when the company signed a five-year contract with Exxon-Mobil to provide its asset tracking services for Exxon-Mobil-owned cars and trucks operating in remote areas. It made sense to expand the company’s technology into terrestrial and marine applications, but Gilbert says it didn’t make sense to do GSM tracking, which is widely available, or to challenge Qualcomm’s Omnitracs in long-haul trucking. As a result, Gilbert says, Blue Sky initially focused its global satellite communications technology in markets where GSM (Global System Mobile) and GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) wireless technologies were not available.

More recently, Gilbert says Blue Sky has developed dual-mode devices in response to their customers’ needs. The dual-mode equipment provides switchable communications and tracking capabilities that can operate with either the Iridium satellite network or GSM-based wireless networks. Customers use the company’s latest technology, called HawkEye, in a variety of ways, including communications and tracking vehicles on both local and remote routes, service fleet management, and for tracking and managing high value missions or hazardous cargo shipments.

One of the company’s key customers, Gilbert says, is MFO, the Multinational Force and Observers that was created under the Camp David Accords signed in 1979 by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Gilbert says the international peacekeeping force, which patrols the remote border between Egypt and Israel, “is a perfect example of where a dual-mode product has its best utility.”

“At the end of the day,” Gilbert adds, “what we’re about are our backend operations and the use of these devices. Our customers don’t really care what device is sitting in their car, boat, or aircraft. They just want data. Most of it is very small amounts of data, but it’s for very critical sorts of things.”

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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