Two helicopter pilots with ties to tragedy hope their timely invention will take flight with news organizations to help prevent midair collisions.
Their invention, filed last week with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, comes in the aftermath of a fatal July 27 crash over central Phoenix that killed four newsmen from KNXV-TV (Channel 15) and KTVK-TV (Channel 3).
Chris Morrison, president of Scottsdale-based Nuvo Technologies, a wireless technology systems company, and Ralph Gannarelli, an aircraft mechanic and former Channel 15 helicopter pilot, said they are developing an anti-collision device that will assist news pilots.
Morrison, an electronics and wireless guru and radio engineer, said he is designing the system so that it would not interfere with the busy existing communication for news pilots.
“We both were deeply affected by the crash, and thought there could be a better way for news pilots to see where each helicopter is located in relation to one another while so many are in the air at one time,” said Morrison, 39. “Our first step was getting the patent protected. We’d like to market it to news stations such as ABC, NBC, Fox, CBS, and hope they’ll be interested in signing on for something like this.
“We would like to see what the interest is for something like this. We would ask news stations to allow their news pilots to test it after approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.”
Morrison and Gannarelli, who both own Sweizer 300C helicopters, began moving forward with their research on the anti-collision device a day after the two news helicopters collided killing all four aboard the aircraft — Channel 15 pilot Craig Smith and videographer Rick Krolak, and Channel 3 pilot Scott Bowerbank and videographer Jim Cox.
The patent paperwork was filed Thursday.
Morrison, whose father, also a pilot, and grandfather died in a plane crash while flying into bad weather over the Sierra Nevada Mountains when he was 5, also had flown with Bowerbank.
Gannarelli was with Channel 15 for 18 months in 2004-05 and flew with Krolak before Smith. Gannarelli said his friend, Bruce Sousa, asked him several years ago to find him a better-flying helicopter a week before Sousa died in a fiery crash at Deer Valley Airport in Phoenix.
“I’ve thought about coming up with some kind of safety device since Bruce died,” Gannarelli said. “When he died, it hit me pretty hard. It was too late to do something for him, but it’s not too late to do something to prevent something like the news helicopter crash in Phoenix from happening again.”
After closely reading about 50 invention patents involving avionics and aircraft anti-collision systems, Gannarelli is writing the necessary commands for the system.
The device will be wireless-based and work off a NAVSTAR global positioning system, would provide communication to pilots hooked into the system when they are within one mile of one another.
In a touch of a button on the aircraft’s control panel, a voice command would let pilots know where other news helicopters are while maneuvering through the air. The system also would sound a warning if a helicopter is within 300 feet of another.
“It is the scope of this system to aid visual contact with others in the group and quickly re-establish contact when it is lost,” Morrison’s and Gannarelli’s patent summary stated.
Although a patent may not be granted for a minimum of 18 months to two years, the application will be in the hands of a patent examiner within the next two weeks, according to Duane Sutton, an information specialist with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Va.
Morrison has had four of eight invention patents approved for both electronic and wireless-based components, including a device called BarVision that monitors the amount of alcohol bartenders pour from a bottle or tap.
The helicopter safety system device is unrelated to his business, he said.
Morrison, who once flew customers to the Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auction in Scottsdale, received a pilot’s license when he was a teenager and said he has logged more than 500 hours of helicopter flying time in 10 years.
At age 30, Morrison also was featured in a Forbes magazine cover story on young entrepreneurs. The magazine wrote about Morrison’s former company, PLP Digital Systems, a 36-employee, $6-million revenue company he co-founded that made printing systems and management software for architects and engineers.
The anti-collision device doesn’t yet have a name but it could come to fruition in about six months, Morrison said. The next step will be contacting general managers and news directors of Valley stations, as well as news pilots to discuss the proposed system. The device would cost less than $50,000 per helicopter, he said.
The FAA also would require “exhaustive” testing before it would consider approving the system, which could take upward of a year, according to FAA spokesman Ian Gregor.
So far, executives from at least two Valley news stations said they would be open to looking at the invention.“We would certainly look at any technological advance that our pilots believe would help keep them as safe as possible,” said Tom Bell, news director for Channel 5.
Janice Todd, general manager for Channel 15, told the Tribune the station also would be very open to any advances in technology that would make news helicopters safer. “If this is a bona fide product, and if our engineers looked at it and saw in their estimate it worked, there would be no reason not to try it,” Todd said. “We’re open to anything that would make a safer environment. We wish (Morrison and Gannarelli) well. It’s sad that the motivator for something like this had to be a tragic accident.”