Laptops threatened with plane ban

A preliminary investigation by NASA has found evidence that ultrawideband devices could interfere with an aeroplane's safety systems - it could mean a ban for all laptops
Written by Graeme Wearden, Contributor

Concerns over the safety of Ultrawideband (UWB) could see aeroplane passengers banned from using laptop computers while onboard a flight.

Britain's Civil Aviation Authority is considering implementing the ban following research carried out earlier this year by NASA scientists into UWB. The ban was first reported in Monday's The Times newspaper. The researchers, based at NASA Langley, found evidence that UWB devices could affect a plane's electronics, including its instrument landing system and its collision avoidance systems.

Laptops that include a UWB chip are expected to go on sale in 2003. A Civil Aviation Authority spokeswoman told ZDNet UK News that it could ban passengers from using laptops in flight if further evidence emerged that UWB poses a threat.

All laptop use might have to be stopped, because air crews could not be expected to tell which laptops might include a UWB chip and which might not, so a blanket ban could be the only answer.

NASA's research is not considered to be extensive enough to have provided conclusive results, but some in the aviation industry are very concerned about the findings.

In the tests, NASA placed the UWB chip at various points inside two United Airlines planes, a Boeing 747 and a Boeing 737.

NASA detected interference with the instrument landing system after applying frequency modulation to the UWB chip. Interference with the traffic-alert collision avoidance systems also occurred after the power output of the chip has been boosted to some 100 times greater that its usual level.

"Our primary concern is safety, and it's possible that we may have to make a ruling about UWB in the future," the Civil Aviation Authority spokeswoman said.

It is possible that the Civil Aviation Authority will conduct its own tests into UWB. "More research is probably needed into this issue. We'll take all research on board when making any decision, and we may conduct our own research if necessary," the Civil Aviation Authority spokeswoman explained, adding that it will also be talking to the Radiocommunications Agency about the issue.

The Civil Aviation Authority recently conducted its own tests into the safety threat posed to aircraft by mobile phones.

Unlike most other wireless technologies, which are restricted to a small range of the radiocommunications spectrum, UWB uses low-powered pulses that spread over hundreds of megahertz of bandwidth.

Advocates of UWB insist that these pulses do not create unruly interference with other waves, though, because they are so low-power. Some critics have expressed concern, though that because UWB uses such a wide range of frequencies it might interfere with Global Positioning Systems (GPS) -- which are used by aeroplanes for navigation.

As ZDNet UK reported, Intel recently publicly demonstrated its first working ultrawideband wireless link at an engineering session of the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco.

Discover the latest developments in Wi-Fi, 3G, GPRS and other cutting-edge wireless technologies at ZDNet UK's Wireelss News Section.

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