General Thoughts and Rambles, Standards

Old Rigid Standard – Almost Ate My First Company

Back in … ahem … the late 90s, my partner and I made our first international sale. We were juiced – all we had to do was hook up the search and rescue software that we had (SARMaster) to the US Mission Control System – the system that manages the US segment of COSPAS-SARSAT. Simple – right? We’d already done it in Canada so how different could it be?

We price our bid low – I recall it was well under $250K (it may have been <$100K) for the full site. When we got there, ready to write our final bits of software in the hotel (love Courtyard Marriott!) we were in for one heck of a surprise when we tried to hook up to the AFTN. AFTN (Aeronautical Fixed Telecommunications Network) was used to do air-traffic control so it had to be rigid and controlled. It wasn’t at all ready for what a couple of new university grads were trying to do with it. It has been upgraded since then, but it is still a pretty strange and archaic beast from what I can tell. It’s a standard – but it is an old, rigid, and effectively closed (you pay for entry) network – no newbies allowed.

We reached out and found out that the development kit and testing kit for hooking up to the AFTN was more money than we were charging for the full system. I can’t remember if the dev kit was $250K or not, but I remember it was insanely expensive and would have bankrupted us out of the gate.

So – what’s a 3-man company (may have been 4) to do? Well, buying the kit was out of the question so we started Macgyver-ing. The AFTN terminal at AFRCC terminated at a serial printer.

So – how do you teach a computer to pretend it is a serial printer – well, first off you get a serial guy (we had one – he used to do Cirque de Soleil stage controls), then you teach the computer to play stupid at its end (printers are quite stupid in RS-232 speak). To do this you basically ignore all of these computer-centric RS-232 guidance and start ignoring some of the signals – who needs an ACK?

Once we figured out that we could emulate a printer, we were off to the races – I’ll save some stories for later, but the late nights were insane.

The staff at AFRCC were incredible – silly buggers thought we were sleeping at times – we were still there when they returned for their shifts. After a two-week crush we had the system working.

The AFRCC controllers had one complaint – the new system didn’t make any noise.

So, we added sound – they picked it …

… it sounded like a dot-matrix serial printer.

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