Smart Phones and Gadgets – the New Nemesis of Avionics

I don’t particularly care for airports. You rush to get to them. You rush thru check-in and push your way thru never-ending queues to go thru security and get the prerequisite pre-boarding massage (I seem to get pat downs as I go thru security a lot and even though I gladly submit to them I’m starting to think that they are a new service that the airlines provide and thus deserve a proper marketing name ;-)). Then you wait, wait and wait some more until your flight is called. Yup, I admit it. I’m not the most patient person and sitting in airport lounges drives me up the wall. So I’m really glad that I’ve got my Blackberry.

Not exactly a passenger plane or anything related to avionics but a rather cool CFD animation done with FloEFD. Animation courtesy of Mentor Graphics.

I can sit there and while away the time: I read and answer emails or make urgent phone calls (a bit unpleasant as you have to constantly stop talking until the overhead announcements are over and done with). On my last trip, I’d been super efficient. While standing in the baggage drop-off line for 30 minutes (I’m not joking, I had already checked in online and just needed to drop off my bag), I  answered my emails so by the time I got to the pre-board lounge at 6 PM on a Friday night I had nothing to do. Mind you Frankfurt airport is massive (lots of shopping and good eats) but after 4 days of early morning wake-up calls and late nights I was just too tired to do anything but to plop down on a chair. After a couple of minutes of polite conversation, my colleague pulled out his iPad and we each retreated into our own worlds. After 5 minutes of people watching I spied the newspaper rack across the hall and realized there was an English newspaper there — my salvation from boredom. I sauntered over and picked up a copy of the Daily Mail. The Daily Mail offers a mix of hard news news with celebrity gossip and faced with the prospect of sitting idly or reading something it offered an acceptable solution.

Once settled on the plane, I retreated into the world of Daily Mail. The first half of the newspaper brought me up to speed on world affairs. Then low and behold on page 25, tucked in the corner I found an article that jumped off the page (at least to me). There were 3 other stories on the page but the relative font size of the title of this article in compare to the other 3 meant that 1) this article was the least important of them all or 2) it’s news they wanted to bury. I suspected it had nothing to do with importance – I won’t bore you with the details of the other three articles except one was about death, the second about money and the last one, well, I’ll use the more business-friendly term of passion. The clip in question was titled “One Mobile ‘can make a plane crash’” (Daily Mail, June 10, 2011). Not what you want to read while sitting on a plane.

The basic gist of the story was that “using just one mobile or electronic device during a flight can cause a plane’s systems to shut down”. According to the article which was based on a leaked confidential research paper, a single Blackberry or an iPad could cause the autopilot to disengage and turn on critical warning lights. Allegedly. I’m saying allegedly because the size of the data they had looked at was rather small: 230 passenger and cargo flights out of 49,000+ (I’m afraid the latest stats I could find were for the year 2000, where we had 49,000+ flights per day worldwide … I’m sure 11 years on we can conservatively say that we have a much higher figure). With a small enough sample you can get supporting evidence for pretty much anything. So I’m sticking with allegedly. But for the sake of argument, if this is true, then even one case is problematic – especially for the folks on the said plane.

Let’s say one case may be possible. How do the numbers stack up? If you have travelled in the past year, you’ll have noticed that there are a lot of iPads around. On a typical 777 with 3 classes of service, we have about 300 passengers. If we assume that 25% of passengers have either a BB or an iPad (and I am seriously underestimating here because a large portion of those travelling tend to have both), that is 75 potential gadgets that could allegedly wreak havoc on a single flight. Not all 49,000 flights are 777s but if you start multiplying away, you’ll start seeing some astronomical figures. If you think I’m not conservative enough, then fine… let’s say 10%. That still is 30 gadgets and 30 people who need to keep those gadgets off. I always make sure to turn off my phone before I get on the plane but I wonder how many people in the last minute rush forget to do it? And how many people rely on their gadgets to keep them entertained during the flight? On my return flight from the States last month, the teenager sitting next to me put down his iPad only while eating or using the facilities – the rest of the time he was either playing a game or watching movies. Any system or process is only as strong as its weakest link.

If and it’s a big IF, this is possible, why would this still be an issue in this day and age of modern engineering?  Maybe I’m naive but with such a wide selection of simulation tools available for avionics design (everything from thermal to electromagnetic analysis) why should we experience or even talk about these types of interference? I’m willing to kinda sorta maybe accept interference issues on older planes but on newer planes? If this is really an issue then this news shouldn’t be hidden away in the corner at the back of newspapers and I truly and well hope that you guys, the engineering community, are looking into it.  Surely one would get better ROI from simulation for fixing a potential problem than from the other option.

On every flight there is always one person who grumbles about having to turn off phones/ebook readers/MP3/PCs players during takeoff/landing. Maybe all flight attendants should carry a copy of this article with them and show it to those folks. Or maybe we should all be mindful that the more likely answer is that their request has got nothing to do with interference. Takeoffs and landings are the two most vulnerable stages of a flight and in case of an emergency the crew needs our full attention – mind you, I’m sure you’d notice the panic/pandemonium around you regardless of how engrossed you are in your game/music/movie. But if even the most impatient person, yours truly, can stand to bear 20 minutes without doing something I’m sure you can too.
Until next time,

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Posted July 4th, 2011, by

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