With more than 100 languages and the ambition to connect even its smallest villages by air, India has become a testing ground for a new software being developed by Honeywell International Inc. that aims to make it easier to understand pilots speaking English with strong local accents.
The conglomerate is, at the behest of the government, developing software that will decipher accents and automatically transcribe what’s said for air traffic controllers. The move will enhance safety at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s push to add smaller airports to the world’s fastest-growing major market has increased the demand for pilots who could be speaking in a thick accent, thanks to more than 6,000-old dialects spoken across the country.
“One of the biggest problems in India has been that we Indians don’t understand each other’s English because of the dialects,” Neelu Khatri, president of Honeywell’s aerospace business in the South Asian nation, said in an interview in New Delhi. “This, we thought, works very well for the regional connectivity scheme, because you have regional pilots coming in, people don’t know what he said and what he understood.”
Miscommunication between air traffic controllers and pilots is a safety threat globally. A fatal 1996 crash between a Saudi Boeing 747 and the Kazakh Ilyushin-76 near New Delhi, which killed 349, was primarily blamed on a language barrier, involving pilots whose first language wasn’t English.
While the project is first being implemented in India, Honeywell sees scope to expand the offering to other parts of the world, Khatri said, without giving further details. The company’s engineering prowess in India allows it to customize products that cater to local needs, rather than push solutions from its global portfolio.
“It’s a real time problem and therefore these kind of problems don’t have ready made solutions,” she said. “We just try to put our people who can understand the problem and then try to create something.”
The Morris Plains, New Jersey-based firm employs more than 3,000 aeronautical engineers in India, with centers in southern Indian cities of Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Madurai. It is working on the transcription project with state-run Airports Authority of India, Khatri said. A spokesman for AAI, which manages about 125 airports, said he wasn’t aware of the development.
Air traffic in India is surging, helped by an increasing middle-class with enough disposable income to fly for the first time. Adding to that traffic is the so-called regional connectivity scheme, abbreviated in Hindi as Udan, under which the government subsidizes some airline losses if they fly to remote areas, while capping airfares on those routes.
The rural connectivity program has already seen success with new flights to dozens of unused or under-utilized airports. Before it began, only one in every six of India’s 450 airports or airstrips was in regular commercial use.
India is projected to be the third-largest aviation market by 2020 and the world’s largest by 2030, according to the India Brand Equity Foundation, a trust established by the commerce ministry.
“Just wait for the Udan scheme to be completely successful,” Vikas Chadha, president of Honeywell India, said in the same interview. “I can sense three years down the line, even smallest of the cities will be connected, and air force stations will be connected.”
(A previous version of this story corrected Vikas Chadha’s designation in last paragraph.)
(Updates with projection on India’s aviation market in 10th paragraph.)
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