Business Spotlight

Illuminating insights

Sensor company on the right track after gliding to success
by Melanie Hall

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T is a family affair for a three-person company in Cranleigh, which scooped a Queen’s Award for Enterprise this year for its tracking system that can send data from anywhere in the world. Trident Sensors won the award in the Innovation category for its Polaris GPS tracker, which uses the Iridium satellite constellation to transmit and receive data from anywhere in the world, even in the north and south poles. It is yet another accolade to add to Trident Sensors’ growing pile since it was founded in 1997 by managing director Helen Cussen, and became a limited company in 2004. Miss Cussen set up the business with her partner, company director Dr Bill Simpson, and were later joined by his son James Simpson. A sediment geochemist with a degree in oceanography with chemistry, Miss Cussen, 41, was working at the NERC Institute of Oceanographic Sciences when it was based in Witley. However, she decided to stay put and start her own business closer to home when the institute moved to Southampton. She set up Trident Sensors the following year in order to design, build and market full ocean depth sediment probes. Miss Cussen got involved with Iridium Communications, which now plays a central role in Trident Sensors’ products, when she submitted a successful proposal in 2002 to the NERC for the Small Business Research Initiative Award. As Miss Cussen and codirector Dr Simpson, 60, are oceanographers by background, original systems were developed for data transmission from remote platforms across the world’s oceans. Customers now include research institutes, blue chip companies and the military. Weighing only 500g, the principle features of the unit are that its advanced design minimises power consumption, enabling it to operate remotely for long periods and provide live data at intervals as frequent as once every 20 seconds. However, part of the beauty of the company’s Polaris system is that it can be customised according to the specifications of the clients, meaning that it is ideal for a wide range of data commu-

A screenshot of the animation of the Glider Grand Prix race. A modified version of Trident Sensor’s Polaris tracker is installed on each glider. The GPS data sent from Polaris assists with building graphic images of the gliders, enabling the crowd to watch the race in near real-time on a big screen when the gliders fly out of sight of the start line.

One of the sensors manufactured at the Dunsfold headquarters. (Ref: SA113345o) nications applications. It is being used to transmit weather data from Met Office buoys, for tracking ships and for reprogramming missions for underwater vehicles while at the sea-surface. In the leisure sector it is used for tracking competitors in adventure sports such as cycling, yachting and gliding. The system was used in the Glider Grand Prix race, with a modified version of Trident Sensor’s Polaris tracker installed on each glider. The GPS data sent from Polaris helped build graphic images of the gliders, enabling the crowd to watch the race in near real-time on a big screen when the gliders fly out of sight of the start line. Miss Cussen said: “When they had the Glider Grand Prix in Switzerland, one of the pilots crashed and the first they knew about it was from the information from our tracker. “The emergency services knew exactly where he was. He did survive, although he was very badly injured, but he was able to be rescued far more quickly.” When used in the defence sector for tracking personnel, Polaris’ sensitive motion sensor can even tell when an

operative is down. The system also plays a vital part in search and rescue missions. Their new product TRIG allows people to send an alert message which is acknowledged by the control centre, which sends a message back confirming that the distress signal has been received – this is indicated by lighting up a blue button on the device. “Psychologically, it has a massive impact,” explained Dr Simpson. “Knowing that people know you are in trouble gives an increased life-expectancy – it gives people hope and a psychological boost to keep them alive until the emergency services get there.” In addition to being a tracker and alert beacon, TRIG, which was launched in January this year, enables smart-phones to communicate to anyone from anywhere in the world by text. It has been trialled in the Middle East, and was used in Japan after the earthquake. Giving another example of their product’s use, Miss Cussen said: “The underwater vehicle that was used for looking for the black box from the Air France plane that crashed off the coast of Brazil in 2009 had our equipment on it.” Polaris uses the Iridium satellite constellation of 66 satellites for two-way communication anywhere in the world, including polar regions. This is possible because the Iridium satellites are in polar orbits, say Trident Sensors, unlike rival systems which do not cover high latitudes. Trident Sensors is among the numerous technology companies in the UK that have three employees or less. Working as a family unit means that business often makes it to the dinner table, explained Miss Cussen, who is based with Dr Simpson in Chiddingfold. “We do talk about things when we are away from the office, but when you are interested in what you do, that’s not a problem,” she said. “At the same time, you do learn that you have to switch off sometimes.” Dr Simpson’s son James, 25, who lives in Haslemere, joined the company two years ago after completing a law degree, and is in charge of the sales and marketing side of the business. For Miss Cussen, one of the benefits of being a small company is that they can react more quickly to changing demands. “A lot of the companies

Dr Bill Simpson and Helen Cussen with their Queens Award. (Ref: SA113345l) that we work for and supply are big organisations that can’t move quickly enough, as they have all these procedures in place and it costs them a lot more and takes them a lot longer,” she said. Their high-flying research comes with an equally lofty location – at the air traffic control tower at Dunsfold aerodrome, next to a stationary Boeing 747. When Miss Cussen and Dr Simpson heard that a business park had opened on the site of an old airfield, they hoped they might have hit upon the ideal base for their state-of-the art satellite twoway data communications project. Within a week, they had arranged to lease the control tower, redecorated it and moved in. The office also provides a panoramic view of high performance cars being put through their paces for BBC’s Top Gear motor show. Other shows that have been filmed next to Trident Sensors’ offices include TV shows Spooks, Footballers’ Wives and Come Fly With Me, as well as James Bond film Casino Royale. “We can watch Top Gear from our roof,” said Dr Simpson. “We once saw Tom Cruise almost rolling the car.”

The firm is based at the air traffic control tower at Dunsfold aerodrome. (Ref: SA113345p)

James Simpson in the workshop. Pictures: Steve Porter. (Ref: SA113345)

One of the sensors in action. (Ref: SA113345s)