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

2/15/11Follow @bvbigelow

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 … Next Page »

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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