Aircraft Wi-Fi fears won't fly

Aircraft Wi-Fi fears won't fly

Summary: There's nothing the world likes more than a good radiation scare. Mobile phone health panics are quiet at the moment — which could be permanent, like the microwave oven cancer flap that went into spontaneous remission and stayed there.

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TOPICS: Emerging Tech
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There's nothing the world likes more than a good radiation scare. Mobile phone health panics are quiet at the moment — which could be permanent, like the microwave oven cancer flap that went into spontaneous remission and stayed there. Instead, the burgeoning world of in-flight entertainment beckons as the next fear factory.

Take this story from the generally sensible Flight Global publication; Wi-Fi interference with Honeywell avionics prompts Boeing action. Sounds quite scary, especially since it's a report on a problem uncovered during certification for Aircell's Gogo, an in-flight passenger internet system. In-flight internet is the next big thing: will it lead to fiery death?

No — well, not unless you're playing some online shoot-em-up. The report gives the lie to the headline: the problem was found during testing at "elevated power levels" and results in one particular variant of a cockpit display panel temporarily blanking out. It came back within an acceptable time period.

Which is how and why you do these tests. Like airframe and engine testing, you push parameters to well beyond operating limits to see if anything goes pop. What the tests have not shown is that there's any real-life problem. At normal power levels, there's no problem. Using any other variant of the display panel: no problem. The actual wi-fi system itself: no problem. Honeywell, which makes the over-sensitive display panel, is working on a fix (slap a cap on it, chaps) and meanwhile, Boeing has put the certification process on hold until everything's OK.

And the article is clear on this. It's just that the headline writers couldn't resist a bit of hyperbole. There are plenty of chances for stories about avionics being too sensitive to the aircraft's own two-way radios, or ground radar signals, or whatever. But nobody would write them, because outside the specialist engineering press they're not really stories at all.

Even within the RF design community, they only have currency as war stories — how we used an unusually well-trained sniffer herring to track that 2.5 GHz spur down to an out-of-spec resistor. That sort of thing.

So, don't panic. Read the story, not just the headline. The worst that'll happen is you'll have to wait a little longer before you get to read your spam at 35,000 feet.

Topic: Emerging Tech

Rupert Goodwins

About Rupert Goodwins

Rupert started off as a nerdy lad expecting to be an electronics engineer, but having tried it for a while discovered that journalism was more fun. He ended up on PC Magazine in the early '90s, before that evolved into ZDNet UK - and Rupert evolved with them into an online journalist.

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  • If there were endemic problems, I'd expect them to have shown up on the myriad Wi-Fi enabled flights at least once so far...

    I once had a fascinating flight where I was sitting next to a pilot (off duty, flying home for the weekend) and I took the chance to ask him about mobile phones and planes. 'There's at least one turned on, on every single flight.' he told me. 'Usually it belongs to the pilot.' The flight crew know if there are phones turned on; that rhythmic noise you hear when your phone is too close to a speaker and it checks in with the network? they hear that in their speakers. Has a phone ever interefered with plane systems? Not that he has ever noticed. But he'd rather they were off, at least for takeoff and landing, so you're actually listening to the cabin crew! And the most dangerous thing he knows of? Flying in snow, because it's almost hypnotic.

    MB
    Simon Bisson and Mary Branscombe