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Electronics & Planes Don't Mix? 625

dirtydamo writes "The Sydney Morning Herald is running an interesting story on the old debate on whether electronic devices cause problems on planes. It appears pilots are pretty much accustomed to handling weird problems with equipment, which they attribute to passengers' portable devices. More research is needed to determine whether or not this is the actual problem, but the article certainly makes me a little uneasy about modern air travel."
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Electronics & Planes Don't Mix?

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  • by grub ( 11606 ) <> on Monday September 15, 2003 @09:30AM (#6963124) Homepage Journal

    Say I need more tinfoil on my hat, but I don't doubt for a moment that terrorists somewhere are looking at a way to have a "martyr" on a plane disrupt the controls from the cabin using electronics. No overt attack neccesary; he would flip a switch, sit back and look forward to his 70 virgins that Allah[0] will be handing over in a few minutes while the crew futiley scramble around until the inevitable crash.

    [0] Just an example, Islam != terrorism.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Sad I have to post this anonymously.
    • by WIAKywbfatw ( 307557 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @09:40AM (#6963211) Journal
      ...and look forward to his 70 virgins that Allah[0] will be handing over...

      Actually, it's 72. That's 72 more than most programmers get in a lifetime.
      • by Anonymous Coward
        Or perhaps the 72 virgins will BE programmers...
      • by MulluskO ( 305219 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @01:17PM (#6965434) Journal
        Where do they get the 72 virgins? In my mind, there are a lot of unanswered questions regarding this:

        • Does Allah create them on an as-needed basis?
        • Were they ever living on earth?
        • Does the supply ever run out?
        • Do they possess the same sentience and free will that we do?
        • If they don't posses free will, is it worth being with them?
        • If they do posses free will, would you really want 72?
        • What do they think of being fated to service a dirty terrorist for all eternity?
        • My biggest question thing is whether the virgin thing is actually believed by anyone, except paranoid christians. Sounds like religious FUD to me. Next they'll be telling us they eat babies.
        • by mr100percent ( 57156 ) * on Monday September 15, 2003 @02:03PM (#6965919) Homepage Journal
          The 72 virgins are probably the most overblown thing that people seem to remember about Islam. Forget the doctrines of monotheism, all people want to hear about is the virgins. There's a lot more to Paradise than just sex and physical pleasure, you know.

          Ok, the Quran says that those who do go to heaven will be rewarded with blessings that eclipse anything on earth; unlimited food, riches, wishes come true. People will be reunited with their relatives, we will all be made young again, there will be no anger or pain. Those who get to the highest part will also be able to see Allah with their own eyes. Also, the believers who make it into Paradise, male and female, are promised beautiful companions called "Houris."

          The Quran describes them in some detail. They are basically creations of God, intelligent yet soulless and created to serve the believer who goes to Paradise. They are described as pure, beautiful, lustrous, virgin, and more perfect than any human on earth. The woman of your dreams. A man in paradise will get numerous female servants for himself, while a woman would get male servants.

          In Paradise, you can marry them. Even if you were married on earth, they will be invisible to your spouse. Islam is pretty clear in saying that guiltless sex is a reward in Paradise.

          To answer your questions, they are made for the believers, they are intelligent yet have no souls. They are created for the purpose of serving the believer. They dont exactly have free will, they are like the angels in that regard. Of course it's worth being with them, since they aren't droids, they are smart but they just cant disobey God.

          And no, dirty terrorists who hurt innocent people are sinning, so it's up to Allah if they'll go to Paradise or not.
          More info on "the islamic paradise" []

      • According to the Onion (satirical newspaper), hijackers and other assorted martyrs are often "Suprised to Find Selves in Hell." [].

        "I was promised I would spend eternity in Paradise, being fed honeyed cakes by 67 virgins in a tree-lined garden, if only I would fly the airplane into one of the Twin Towers," said Mohammed Atta, one of the hijackers of American Airlines Flight 11, between attempts to vomit up the wasps, hornets, and live coals infesting his stomach. "But instead, I am fed the boiling feces of t

    • by RevMike ( 632002 ) < minus math_god> on Monday September 15, 2003 @09:41AM (#6963222) Journal

      Quick show of hands: Who else read this as the first element of the Allah array?

    • Too far fetched... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by TWX ( 665546 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @09:50AM (#6963303)
      "No overt attack neccesary; he would flip a switch, sit back and look forward to his 70 virgins that Allah[0] will be handing over in a few minutes while the crew futiley scramble around until the inevitable crash."

      If we design our aircraft so poorly as to not have any manual controls, then some re-evaluation needs to occur. There's a reason that we have trained pilots that go through fairly extensive training on a particular aircraft (and are certified on only the particular plan/cockpit configuration that they fly regularly), is because they are supposed to be experts in what they do. If an electronics bug can cause a plane to fall from the sky, then the electronics have way too much control over the flaps, engines, rudder, and ailerons, and even if the computer is capable of making adjustments, the plane should still be manually controllable. I mean, what if lightning strikes a plane in the exact wrong place and it manages to cook the onboard computers?
      • by stilwebm ( 129567 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @10:11AM (#6963491)
        If we design our aircraft so poorly as to not have any manual controls, then some re-evaluation needs to occur.

        Exactly. The problem however, is when pilots (or air controllers) rely on instruments they believe to be accurate and have no way of knowing whether this is true. In some instrument landing system (ILS) landings, it is virtually impossible to land without the instruments or verify all the parameters. More often, this only makes it hard to recover from another mistake such as leaving air brakes on [] or verifying that the ground aid is working []. Pilots have well defined procedures for preventing these mistakes and for recovering from them as well. Yet the danger of faith in an inaccurate instrument can lead the crew to feel nothing is wrong until it is too late.
        • by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @10:54AM (#6963928) Homepage
          In some instrument landing system (ILS) landings, it is virtually impossible to land without the instruments or verify all the parameters.

          I'm pretty sure that's why they still put windows in front of the aircraft.... Unless it's just for pretty pictures and making the workplace more enjoyable.

          Granted this wont work in low visibility. but 6 times out of 10 it's not an issue.

          It worked for the first 7/8ths of aviation history... I'm sure it will work for while more.

        • Exactly. The problem however, is when pilots (or air controllers) rely on instruments they believe to be accurate and have no way of knowing whether this is true. In some instrument landing system (ILS) landings, it is virtually impossible to land without the instruments or verify all the parameters.

          This is why they call them "instrument landings", and without them we wouldn't be able to fly in bad weather at all. A good percentage of all flights are flown under instrument flight rules and there's no hi
      • by jbwolfe ( 241413 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @11:07AM (#6964054) Homepage
        Then this will scare you...
        Every Airbus ever made has been fly by wire. There is absolutely no direct connection to the flight control surfaces. The closest it gets is pitch trim can manually deflect the stabilizer through a hydralic actuator- the connection is still wired but seperate. All control inputs are fed to seven computers (2 ELACs, 2 FACs, and 3 SECs) which position the control surfaces. The system has three catagories of control law. Without any electrical power, the aircraft is uncontrollable.
        Now to ease your fears...
        If there are multiple failures of redundant systems, the controls can move from normal to alternate or direct law. Even with complete loss of generator power, the pilot can operate in direct law (on battery) and land safely. Yes, we train in this law. No, its not easy.

        P.S. Lightning stikes are common and most aircraft have some damage taht is deferred until the next heavy maint. visit.
        • by scottme ( 584888 )
          I was once a participant in a class - part of a software engineering course - taught by an old-timer aircraft design engineer. He came across as very experienced and very well-informed. He was telling us some very scary tales about real life fly-by-wire systems and the kinds of failure modes they can exhibit.

          But the most telling thing he said was "There is no way I would ever be a passenger on an Airbus."

          Personally, it doesn't particularly bother me. In fact after 727s, I have flown more times on Airbu
      • by danielsfca2 ( 696792 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @11:35AM (#6964352) Journal
        Where's the right place for lightning to strike a plane?

        Newscaster: "Fortunately, Dennis, flight 242 was struck in just the right place, giving a pleasing massage-like sensation to all aboard, and making the plane arrive in SFO a half-hour ahead of schedule. I'm Leslie Griffith. Back to you in the studio."

    • by mgv ( 198488 ) <Nospam@01@slash2dot.veltman@org> on Monday September 15, 2003 @10:07AM (#6963451) Homepage Journal
      ay I need more tinfoil on my hat, but I don't doubt for a moment that terrorists somewhere are looking at a way to have a "martyr" on a plane disrupt the controls from the cabin using electronics.

      If you want scary, how about a terrorist on a hill top with a satellite dish? You could pump alot more power into a plane from a land based transmitter with a focused beam. You would be near to undetectable. You could fire it off through the back window of a van. You wouldn't even be able to triangulate on the beam if its a focused one. Its alot more discreet than firing a rocket launcher from near the tarmac. Even if you found the "weapon", you would be hard put to prove it caused the accident. Most police wouldn't even know what they were looking at if they found something like this.

      This scares me alot more than somebody on a plane with a gameboy that uses 2 AAA batteries.

      My 2c worth: Fix the planes - turning off the mobiles just hides the problem. The only defence against this is to harden the plane's electronics so that it can withstand this sort of thing.

      • by Lumpy ( 12016 )
        I have an easier solution.... faraday cage the damn cabin and call it done. or better yet quit taking the cheap route in cable shielding, avionics.

        Boeing and the other companies like them are to blame.

        Dammit, it's the 21's century, why the hell are we still screwing around with cheap solutions on aircraft?
      • My 2c worth: Fix the planes - turning off the mobiles just hides the problem. The only defence against this is to harden the plane's electronics so that it can withstand this sort of thing.

        I was thinking the same thing. I mean, who designed these critical systems to be so sensitive to EMI (or whatever interference is in question). Is it impossible to properly shield this equipment?

        I see this as an opportunity to fix a major weak spot in our transportation safety. The long-term smart decision is

    • by treat ( 84622 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @10:10AM (#6963485)
      Isn't this the best evidence that airplanes are not in fact this fragile? If an attack were so trivial, it would have already happened. A device the size of an ipod could emit a million times more RF than an ipod does, if it were designed to do so.
    • by emil ( 695 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @10:18AM (#6963573)

      As you can see here [].

  • Anyone with a laptop=possible terrorist, subject to immense scrutiny and background check.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 15, 2003 @09:32AM (#6963134)
    Just the other week we had the article on Slashdot about cell phones not working in planes.

    And, after all, what's the big rush?

    Planes are generally quiet places, where you can lie back, enjoy some wine, watch a movie in the front of your seat, have a wonderfully cooked meal.

    I can even recline horizontally if I so choose.

    What need do you have for electronics on that? I don't want a pager or a beeper or a celly going off in the middle of the air! Not to disturb my solitude!

    And another thing, let's get rid of all these damn kids with gameboys.
  • But wait - (Score:4, Funny)

    by vasqzr ( 619165 ) <> on Monday September 15, 2003 @09:32AM (#6963136)

    70 virgins? Why don't they just enroll in college?

    You get virgins, alcohol, [b]and[/b] meth.

  • by sixteenraisins ( 67316 ) <> on Monday September 15, 2003 @09:32AM (#6963137) Homepage
    Weren't folks on that plane using cellphones with no apparent problem? And I've seen DVD players for rent in airports as well.

    Forget about screening for bombs - it's even scarier to think that you can bring down an airliner with a Game Boy.

  • C & H (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 15, 2003 @09:33AM (#6963149)
    Ahh yes, modern air travel [], don't trust it.
  • by jbellis ( 142590 ) * <`moc.rednelbeganrac' `ta' `nahtanoj'> on Monday September 15, 2003 @09:34AM (#6963151) Homepage
    The only actual research I'm aware of on this is an FAA study from the '90s. This article [] is a good summary: Cell phone use isn't banned by the FAA, but by the FCC in 1991, citing "cell phones' potential to interfere with ground-to-ground cellular transmission." Another web site [] explains, "at altitude, a cell phone will light up multiple cell towers and may cause the system to lock up." BS? The FAA is going to do another study [] and they don't seem too worried about "locking up the system."
    • I cant help but feel this is another one of those "just in case" type ban's. As such, there is probrably no issues with using cell phones or laptops in an air plane... but since so much is at stake... we might as well ban them.

      Sorta like how your supposed to turn off your cell phone when pumping gasoline. This is based of an urban legend that the electronic feedback of the phone is sufficent to ignite petrol fumes. Yet... still we have warnings at all pumps, even though there has *NEVER* been a fire ba
      • by Analysis Paralysis ( 175834 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @10:11AM (#6963495)
        A couple of years ago, I was on a flight from Manchester, UK to Brussels, Belgium with Sabena (who have since gone bust []). On that flight I took a Gateway Solo 9100 latop (with a built-in DVD player). The onboard instructions did warn against using CD-players, but as I did not intend to use the DVD (just leave it empty), I asked the stewardess if I could use the laptop and she said yes. A few minutes later, she came back saying there was a problem and asked me to switch it off. I did so and removed the DVD player - when I tried again (after letting her know), no further problems occurred.

        It was only at the end of the flight when she told me that the pilot had lost contact with ground control - all because of an empty DVD player. I was able to use the laptop on other aircraft (British Airways specifically) without further incident - but this does suggest that some (older) planes are extremely vulnerable to interference.

        • This sort of failure is totatlly inexcusable. If your car went wacky when a cell phone was used near it, there would be mass recalls on the vehicle. Instead of banning the electronic devices, we should be fixing the friggin planes. Next thing you know, terrorists will be trying to determine how many cell phones it takes to crash a plane.
      • How about banning cellphones laptops and games just in case you have a marketing partnership for in-flight communications/entertainment/advertising services? Nothing like a captive audience to drum up advertising bucks for those poor ailing airline companies!

        If planes went haywire during sunspots and solar flares the FAA would require them to be properly shielded or use fiber optics or something. Why not demand that they use fiber optics for flight-systems instead of antiquated and vulnerable electrical s

    • I think that the "locking up the system problem" came from those times that mobile phone networks had reduced capacity.
      For example if a Jumbojet with 40 passengers flew over a residentilal are before landing their phones could overwhelm the network.

      I'm not sure about how CDMA handles this, but my (limited) knowledge about European GSM networks don't indicate that this is a problem.

    • As a former frequent flyer, I will observe that it's very very unlikely that (aboard any flight with more than a few passengers)all electronic devices are, in fact, turned off. I frequently heard cell phones ringing just as the pilot rotated off the ground. Woops! I've also seen kids hide their GBA's as the attendant walked by. That sort of thing is probably frequently by accident, but either way, I would guess that hundreds of flights take off every day with portable devices aboard which are fully fu
    • Scientific evidence (Score:4, Interesting)

      by 47PHA60 ( 444748 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @11:15AM (#6964145) Journal
      Maybe flight 93 didn't crash because the passengers fought the terrorists, it was the rest of the passengers using their cell phones.

      But in reality, I have also been unable to find any scientific study about personal electronics and airline instruments / communications.

      I would want to see the following questions answered: how I can use my "FCC home or office approved" device without causing any problems (the houses in my neighborhood are right up next to one another), but my iPod can somehow make an altimeter or compass screw up if I go a few kilometers above sea level? Are the airlines telling me that my Mac and neighbors' phones are better built than their jet cockpits?

      Presuming that a laptop or cell phone can interfere with airplane cockpits, why can it not be detected from the cockpit? ("We've detected that personal electronics are on, and we won't take off until they're all off.") On the other hand, they cannot even detect a bomb in their luggage hold. If you cannot detect a signal from a gameboy, how can the device interfere with the plane?

      It seems to me that it should be fairly simple (if not cheap) to find a correlation (or even cause-and-effect), then figure out a way to either enforce the ban, or shield the cabins and pass the cost onto the passengers.

      Or, laptop makers could offer more expensive shielded models that will not be detected by, or interfere with, airplane instruments. Again, maybe some actual scientists could take a crack at proving this hypothesis first.

      Now, let's talk about the unwillingness or airlines and governments to protect commercial planes against shoulder-launched missiles...
  • Stupid question: (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ivan256 ( 17499 ) * on Monday September 15, 2003 @09:34AM (#6963155)
    "You've got to ask, do you want to get there, or do you want to use your laptop?"

    Both. It's a million dollar aircraft, and the ticket is expensive. Figure out how to make it safe. When they find themselves asking questions like this, how can they wonder why they're having a hard time making money?
    • It's a million dollar aircraft,...

      Yeah and most were designed in the 60s and 70s. Most built before cell phones, laptops and other electronics were built. If they can't get their damn movies to work right half the time, why do you trust that they understand the electronic device that you are bringing on the plane. There is plenty of stuff that I want the airlines to fix but I personally used to like the days when the plane was a time out for reading not just another work place.

    • Re:Stupid question: (Score:3, Informative)

      by ninthwave ( 150430 )
      If you add in the operating costs of the craft I do not say the tickets are expensive. But then right now in the United Kingdom there is a budget airline price war where before taxes you can get a 9 flight to Spain. When I lived in the states that would be the same as a $14 NYC flight to Miami. So it is all relative about it being expensive or not. And the taxes on top of that cost do not go to the aircraft operating costs.
  • by penginkun ( 585807 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @09:35AM (#6963172)
    Can't they insulate all the sensitive equipment from the passenger section? Maybe have a layer of lead between the cockpit and the rest of the plane?

    If things are really that bad, they're going to have to do something to address this, and soon. They need to harden the equipment against interference, and do it NOW.
    • Can't they insulate all the sensitive equipment from the passenger section? Maybe have a layer of lead between the cockpit and the rest of the plane?

      I think that there are easier ways of accomplishing that... after all, you are only talking about isolating electronics, not preventing superman from peering into the cockpit and seeing what color underwear the pilot wears...

    • by psyconaut ( 228947 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @09:43AM (#6963235)
      See my other reply to someone asking this, it's not the cockput that's the's the wiring looms that run all over the aircraft that end up acting like RF antennas.

    • by ddimas ( 629883 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @10:17AM (#6963551)
      The problem is not alpha, beta or gamma radiation, the problem is that the wires controlling the airplane make a really nice radio frequency antenna. Those wires by necessity run throughout the plane. The obvious answer is to redesign the passanger compartment to make it a properly grounded faraday cage. The side effect will be that you won't be able to use communications devices. Altrenativly you can rewire the entire plane with grounded control (coaxial) cables, think $$$ and weight = shorter flight range, if you can cram them in there at all.

      BTW airplanes are not the only place this kind of interference shows up. Any instrument with an exposed wire is subject to this kind of RF interference. Examples include medical equipment, entertainment devices, and scientific instrumentation.

      I have personally identified it in HPLC chromatograms (analytical chemistry) where it shows up as spurious peaks (everybody else was thinking sample contamination). We had to ban communications devices from the labs, the security guards and manufacturing people used to grumble, but oh well.

    • Can't they insulate all the sensitive equipment from the passenger section? Maybe have a layer of lead between the cockpit and the rest of the plane?

      Uhhh, there are sensitive electronics all over the aircraft, not just in the cockpit, and they are where they are for a reason - you can't move all the landing gear and flaps to the cockpit and so the associated electronics can't go there either.

      Lining half the aircraft with lead is hardly practical, not unless you want to reduce passenger numbers and increa
  • by jargoone ( 166102 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @09:37AM (#6963186)
    A co-worker was using a wireless keyboard for his PDA, and was told by the flight attendant to not use it during flight. It was infrared, not RF. He tried to explain this to her, but she didn't get it, which is understandable, most non-geeks wouldn't. Solution: tape a piece of wire to it, and to his PDA, while in flight. :-)
  • by Dark Lord Seth ( 584963 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @09:38AM (#6963195) Journal
    "You've got to ask, do you want to get there, or do you want to use your laptop?"

    Well, let me put it this way; do you want to spend several hours in a plane with a possible nudge to some direction or go through several hours of terror as yuppies break down and explode in front of you because they can't read their bloody email, can't act interesting by talking on their mobile nor can they look up contact they'll never meet on their PDAs. Well?

    • Enough! (Score:3, Insightful)

      by NDPTAL85 ( 260093 )
      We yuppies are busy and important people. We most certainly WILL be meeting those contacts in our PDA's!

      Whats with all the anti-yuppie sentiment anyways? Previous generations busted their asses to send their kids to college so they could become successful young people and when their kids end up actually succeeding they're instantly hated? What gives?
  • Air Certified (Score:5, Interesting)

    by !the!bad!fish! ( 704825 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @09:39AM (#6963197) Homepage
    Why not test the device on the ground if the passenger wishes to use it in the air? Busy types will pay a premium for equipment certified to be safe and allowed for aircraft use.
  • Uneasy? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by jargoone ( 166102 )
    but the article certainly makes me a little uneasy about modern air travel

    Why? The article says the pilots are used to it and know how to filter it out. Plane crashes are very rare, and the ones that do happen are nearly always related to either weather or non-electronic equipment failure.
  • by BigGar' ( 411008 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @09:41AM (#6963220) Homepage
    consumer electronic devices can cause problems with an aircraftssensitive equipment, couldn't it also be the possiblity that the planes own electronics are causing sporadic problems? Why the hell is suddley my game boy that caused the plane to crash, just because they don't have any other explanation.
  • In one case last year, the ground proximity warning system in a 34-seater plane suddenly went berserk even though the plane - which was just 22 kilometres south-west of Sydney - had levelled off at 5000 feet.

    I think their problem is a bit deeper than it seems...

  • by benpeter ( 699832 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @09:44AM (#6963245)
    I've always wondered why electronic equipment on planes was so much more sensitive then the regular stuff we have down on earth. I mean I can use my mobile phone near my computer and it doesn't lock up and vice versa, turning on my computer doesn't exactly make my mobile phone calls drop out. Electronic devices are specifically designed to withstand a certain amount of interferance, did somebody just forget to do that for plane electronics?

    Just a note, airlines make money from people using in-flight phones, it's not in their economic interest to have people using their mobile phones.
    • by keithmoore ( 106078 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @10:10AM (#6963482) Homepage
      I've always wondered why electronic equipment on planes was so much more sensitive then the regular stuff we have down on earth.

      When your cell phone drops a call, how do you know that the problem isn't some nearby noise-emitting device? You don't. But chances are you've never had a dropped cell call cause a life-threatening situation - it's just an annoyance, and we're used to having cell phones not be that reliable.

      Putting the equipment on an aircraft doesn't make it any more sensitive than any other kind of electronic equipment. However navigational equipment on aircraft is trusted with human lives. Category 3 ILS approaches have to guide the aircraft to a landing in zero visibility with a tolerance of a few feet in any direction. Disruption of that system would be very, very bad.

      If you trusted electronic navigational equipment to drive your car down the highway through dense fog and to keep from hitting other cars, you'd be worried about the sensitivity of that equipment too.
    • Just about all electronics put out a little RF. Your phone, the PDA of the guy next to you, and the laptop of the person behind you.

      Possibly a cumulative effect?

      Now...if the engine fuel mix sensor is in the nose, and the wiring happens to run right under your seat, and the engine fuel mix is a little off because the voltage down the wire is off due to your cell phone and the engine is runing a little rich.

      Throw in some bad weather.

      I'd rather not crash because the pilots were trying to compensate f
    • Well, cell phones are a different breed of animal. The FCC is the group that's not pleased about cell phones in aircraft - the FAA doesn't care (although the actual airlines companies probably do care, for the reasons you cited). When you're 20,000 feet up, your cell phone can see many many towers, as opposed to just one or two when you're down on the ground. As I understand, the cell system keeps switching you back and forth between towers and can eventually lock up causing cell service outages.


  • Electronics (Score:3, Insightful)

    by TWX ( 665546 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @09:45AM (#6963259)
    Now, I know that not everything is as ideal a the FCC Part 15 rules are supposed to ensure, but really, do laptops really put out that much interference in the form of radio waves? How about mp3 players, or calculators, or e-book readers? I guess that what I'm wondering is how these devices are considered Part 15 if they wreak havoc upon aircraft electronics. Yes, I can see how an actual emitter, like a wireless ethernet device, a bluetooth device, or that sort could potentially manifest, but those devices, or their functionality within a larger unit could be fairly easily detected, requiring the passenger to disable the feature, or failing that, not use the equipment in flight.

    Beyond that, if a Part 15 device is that big of a problem, perhaps the FCC should start testing things.
  • Terrorists win? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by warpSpeed ( 67927 ) <> on Monday September 15, 2003 @09:47AM (#6963274) Homepage Journal
    If the critical functioning systems of a plane are suseptable to the EM radiation from a computer or a cell phone, how long until a terrorist creates a cell phone jamming device to "jam" the planes avionics? Should they consider shielding the avionics like they did the cockpit door?

    Or is this just more of the same: "don't use your cell phone on the plane, use the convinient onboard phones we've installed, or the terrorists win (because it cuts into the bottom line)"?

    If you do not fix the problem at the root, you leave yourself open to other, possibly larger, problems.

  • by FleshMuppet ( 544521 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @09:49AM (#6963291)

    Let's face it, airplanes generally last 30 years or more before they are retired. Now, I don't put too much stock in a bunch of non-engineer pilots blaming random problems, but if there are problems with these on-board systems and electronic interferance, they need to be fixed, because electronic devices are not going to become less scarce.

    We routinely hear stories on the biomedical front about how embedded electrical devices are solving problems that traditional medicine couldn't, or didn't solve well. Since the Jarvis heart, biomedical devices have bee cropping up at an increasing pace. I don't think you can ask the guy with a life-sustaining device embedded in his body to turn it off for the flight.

    Add to this wearable computer technology, RFID tags everywhere, smart consumables, etc., and it is very possible that in 30 years it won't be possible to just tell people to turn their devices off. If there is a problem, fix it. If there isn't, stop scaring people.

    • Fix them yourself! (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Teahouse ( 267087 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @10:49AM (#6963873)
      The problem isn't with the aircraft designers. They are designing a complex system to safely transport people. They do shield everything in the sircraft. The problem is with poorly designed personal electronics designed by yahoos who think emissions are just some lame FCC rule they barely think about. The "fix" will not be from Boeing and Airbus. It's going to come from the FAA and FCC combined. They'll tighten up the restrictions on stray emissions, and then they'll probably make a list of devices that can not be allowed. The aircraft people make a very good product. If anything needs to be "fixed" it's the poorly designed products from the personal electronics industry. You can add 2 tons of useless shielding to an aircraft (which still won't quiet all the noise) or you can add a few ounces to each device. I'm in favor of the latter.

  • Suspect (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Dan East ( 318230 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @09:51AM (#6963314) Journal
    How could a device like a Spellchecker possibly emit enough RF to interfere with avionics dozens of feet away? If the avionics were really that sensitive then planes would be crashing every time solar activity increases or lighting strikes within miles of the plane.

    An airport near here in Roanoke requires a landing approach that takes the plane very close to a couple mountains, the tops of which are literally covered with antenna blasting high power RF across the entire radio spectrum. Yet miraculously that doesn't interfere with the avionics.

    Just because the problem went away about the same time the passenger turned off their spellchecker does not prove that was the problem.

    What concerns me the most is that these hundreds of problems have been chalked up to consumer devices, when it could be legitimate problems internal to the avionics. If the are simply written off to external causes then the real problems will not be corrected.

    Dan East
    • Digital Electronics (Score:4, Informative)

      by Detritus ( 11846 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @11:27AM (#6964278) Homepage
      The spellchecker is a digital device. That means it uses lots of digital signals with fast transitions, similar to square waves. Square waves, and digital signals in general, have a large amount of harmonic content. That means that a 10 MHz square wave also contains substantial energy at odd harmonics of the 10 MHz fundamental frequency, such as 30 MHz and 50 MHz.

      Consumer electronics devices are designed to be cheap. That means that they will not add shielding or EMI suppression unless someone holds a gun to their head.

      A portable digital device can radiate large amounts of interference at many different frequencies. What is even worse, the RF output is not constant. Anything with a microprocessor in it will radiate at varying frequencies and power levels depending on what code the microprocessor is executing. This makes it almost impossible to test for interference to specific frequencies.

      The earliest forms of computer music involved putting an AM radio near the computer and executing code snippets that would produce the desired sound (interference) on the radio.

  • Disruption Devices (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 15, 2003 @09:53AM (#6963329)

    Crude EM disruption devices are trival to build. It's one of the basic lessons in the Radio Shack Electronics sets they used to sell with springs and wires for each component in a fairly hardy box. Of course, the set used a relay to create a spark gap, then it just needed a little amplification. A spark gap would be unwieldy and make a lot of noise, but it's an easy leap to a solid state device.

    Odd electronics should not be allowed as a carry on. They should go in a shielded luggage compartment, or be required to be in a shielded case to prevent such attempts.

    Speaking of which, in 1996 when TWA800 went down I was going out of La Guardia the next morning. I figured it would be real fun, so I showed up hours early. I arrived to see three times the number of normal baggage handlers, and they all have shiney black shoes. There are "new" check in computers being manned by the shiney black shoe folks and it's taking over an hour to get "checked" in per person. They are really giving me a hassle, when all of a sudden a hand signal is given and the baggage handlers form a circle around a confused fellow holding a brief case. The biggest "baggage" handler says, "Drop the briefcase", followed by, "Sir, what is in the brief case?"

    Then four of the handlers drop in a group and open the case and begin looking at it's contents. It's got four shiny cylinders, a lot of wiring attached to what appears to be a timer. The gentleman begins stammering. They baggage handlers repeat over and over, louder and louder, "SIR WHAT IS THIS THING!?".

    As he continues to stammer, I lean over and say, "Sales pitch; make it a good one."

    Something clicks in his addled brain and he begins to recite his canned pitch about plastic injection molds. I was relieved, as were several of the baggage handlers as he smoothly attempted to sell us plastic injection molds and controllers. He was led off quietly for further, "inspection".

    That was a hair raising experience.

  • by Zocalo ( 252965 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @09:58AM (#6963375) Homepage
    ...seems to be whose equipment it is you are using, and more importantly, whether the airline can make any money off it. "Your cell phone? You can't use that on the plane sir - it might cause a crash, but you can use our ludicrously expensive 'AirPhone' instead." "WiFi laptop? Oh, no sir, might crash the plane, but we do plan to offer computing in our ludicrously expensive first and business class compartments real soon now!" And despite this there are plans to fly planes via PDA according to a recent Slashdot story. It's one or the other guys!

    Actually, it may not just be money and the aviation industry, I suspect there is also an issue with the herd "I've been told, but did not question" mentality too. I walked into a hospital reception recently while finishing off a mobile phone call, fully intending to switch it off while actually visiting. I was asked to finish my call outside by a nurse with a mobile phone clipped to her belt, it was switched on and presumably there to receive calls. When I raised this it transpired that it was "hospital issue and therefore OK", yeah, right, whatever...

    OK, that's two points, but can you even have two cru... WTF is the plural of "crux" anyway, which I guess answers *that* question. ;)

  • by treat ( 84622 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @10:03AM (#6963421)
    Obviously, statements like this are a blatant lie:

    On another occasion in 1996, a Boeing 767 pitched and dropped 120 metres before pilots recovered control. A passenger using an electronic dictionary was asked to turn it off, and the plane's systems returned to normal.

    Although I'm sure that the liars would defend it by stating that they never said that the dictionary was -responsible- for the incident. But who's telling the lies here, and what is their motive? It must be at such a level that the people in charge of airline security know the truth, or they would not allow any electronic device of any kind onto a plane.

    Is it all just an attempt to sell us their in-flight distractions so that we don't bring our own?

    Has anyone masured the RF output of trivial devices such an an ipod or a digital camera? How about a laptop? Someone here must have a spectrum analyser..

  • "Old" debate indeed (Score:5, Interesting)

    by worldcitizen ( 130185 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @10:06AM (#6963441)
    The IEEE had a very interesting article in Spectrum magazine [] 7 years ago on the issue of portable electronics and flight safety. As megahertz/gigahertz ratings increase for computing devices, this should only get worse (maybe until it gets to the point where computing is beyond "normal" RF?)

    The conclusion was that there is little doubt about the interference and it is not just cell phones. The article relates an incident when too many people listening to the radio (there was some "important" sports match going on) did cause noticeable interference. It seems that in most cases the pilot can notice that some instruments are providing inaccurate readings (thanks to having redundant information around, different instruments would be affected differently) and it doesn't become a big problem.

    So, by using your high-frequency electronic devices inside the plane you're making the pilot's job more difficult. During cruise flight it may be less risky and during takeoff and landing it is definitely not recommended. Personally I wouldn't even trust that much those skyphones. I'd rather err on the safe side. Read a book!
    • Radio? (Score:3, Interesting)

      by phorm ( 591458 )
      Isn't a radio pretty much an input-only device? In this case - with the exception of emissions from the audio-output portion of the device - would not any AM/FM signals be there regardless of wheter a radio is on or not... or does using said radio suddenly gather more signals to a given area. I'm going for the former, and while they may have *said* that radio emissions were causing the interfering, it was likely something else.
      • Re:Radio? (Score:4, Informative)

        by Detritus ( 11846 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @12:07PM (#6964720) Homepage
        Radios are infamous for local oscillator radiation. When the FM signal comes into the radio, it is mixed with a local oscillator signal to downconvert the desired signal to the first IF, usually 10.7 MHz. The local oscillator's frequency is probably set to the frequency of the station you are listening to, plus or minus 10.7 MHz. It isn't unusual for local oscillator energy to escape back up the antenna lead, or to be radiated directly from the electronic circuits.

        Most of the infamous "TV detector" vans in the UK look for local oscillator radiation from TV sets. Not only can they detect that you have a television, the frequency of the local oscillator tells them which channel you are watching. The Nazis and Soviets used similar techniques to locate people who were listening to illegal foreign broadcasts.

        If you look at a spectrum allocation chart, guess what is immediately above the FM broadcast band (88-108 MHz)? The aeronautical band (108-136 MHz), used for voice communication and navigation. Now imagine that you are sitting on an aircraft, listening to KRAP 106.3 MHz on your FM radio. The radio set the local oscillator to 117 MHz (106.3 + 10.7) to mix the signal down to 10.7 MHz. The FM radio is now radiating a signal in the middle of the aeronautical band, hopefully not on a frequency that the pilot is currently using. The radiation from the local oscillator may be relatively weak, but you are much closer to the aircraft's radio antenna than the control tower or the navigation beacon. This was the earliest noted form of interference from passenger electronics to aircraft electronics, well before laptops, GBAs and PDAs.

  • How come... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Jerk City Troll ( 661616 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @10:06AM (#6963447) Homepage

    How come passing cell phone towers, HAM, satelites (GPS, etc.), cosmic rays, (... etc. ...) and even the cockpit systems themselves don't cause interference to the cockpit systems?

    There's a million sources of radiation anywhere there exists modern inhabitation. How come these immensely powerful sources of radiation do not interfere with the aircraft but my CD player with 2AA batters can? And if a tiny electronic device running on two tiny batteries can disrupt an aircraft, how can it possibly be safe to fly? Doesn't that constitute a violation of FCC regulations? (Yes, I meant FCC.)

    • Re:How come... (Score:3, Interesting)

      One idea would be that external sources have to contend with the aluminum shell of the airplane and receivers designed (somewhat) to handle intefering signals.

      Devices inside the airplane could couple directly into internal wiring. Perhaps someone with experience in airplane assembly can illuminate us on how well the wire harnesses are shielded.

      • Re:How come... (Score:3, Interesting)

        One idea would be that external sources have to contend with the aluminum shell of the airplane and receivers designed (somewhat) to handle intefering signals.

        Nevertheless, you can successfully use a cell phone on an airplane (case in point: Somerset, PA, September 11, 2001). While I'm sure the hull provides some shielding, it is clearly not keeping the lion's share external radiation out.

        Furthermore, what about inflight movies? You have 5-10 televisions or LCD panels hanging from the ceiling. Now a

  • by oni ( 41625 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @10:11AM (#6963492) Homepage
    When I pilot sees something weird with the instruments and blames it on a cell phone or PDA or something, that's really anecdotal. What I'd like to see is an interview with a cargo pilot. I mean, do pilots flying MD-11s for Fed Ex see these same little glitches? If so, I think it's safe to say it's not the passengers electronics causing the problems.
  • Maybe (Score:3, Interesting)

    by t_allardyce ( 48447 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @10:14AM (#6963520) Journal
    I read some theory about the actual plane itself (i.e being a long metal tube) not helping with interference. Busses and trains are also long metal tubes, you can use your gps unit, your mobile, your bluetooth and wi-fi notebook and your cd player all at once in bus, car, or train with out them interfering with each-other. I was always suspicious about airline electronics policies, i guess 10 years ago they were just being as safe as they could which is fine, but now days people really need to use their gadgets so its more in the airlines interests to find out exactly whats going on and try and fix it.

    Maybe its because most airliners are quite old and the avionics engineers came up with strange and un-regulated ways of doing things eg "lets send the engine temperature in analog down unsheilded line multiplexed with all the other temperatures at various random frequencies" i could see why that would cause problems.
  • by ttroutma ( 552162 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @10:17AM (#6963553) Homepage
    This one always pissed me off, if it's such a danger then WHY TRUST people to be capable of turning off their devices. Most people can't manage their devices anyway, they are NOT IN control of their electronics. Not such a biggie now but later on with fuel cell powered ultra wide band gadgets...
  • Civilian airplanes are built by the same people who build military planes, and they use the same shielded wiring systems, able to sustain the knocks of high-altitude cosmic radiation.

    Even fly-by-wire Airbuses are highly unlikely to be knocked out by anything a hand-held device can generate.

    The real reason why cellphones are banned in flight is to save ground networks from being spammed by phones zipping from cell to cell a hundred times faster than ever foreseen. Not to protect the plane from disaster.
  • I'm a pilot (Score:5, Informative)

    by Teahouse ( 267087 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @10:25AM (#6963637)
    I'm a private pilot, and even on small planes we can have this problem. The problem does exist. It's not some pilot conspiracy to stop you from playing your Game Boy. Navigation is performed with the aid of a gyroscope and magnetic compass and VOR stations.(GPS is a few years away from becoming a standard). Any number of electronic devices can affect this system. In-cabin devices can have much more affect on these systems then outside incluences simply because you're basically travelling within an aluminum faraday cage. A microwave signal from a cellphone will bounce around inside the cockpit a lot more than if it is outside.

    It is particularly crucial that these devices are off during landings. Landing is by far the most dificult portion of flying. On commercial planes, they are often making their approaches in IFR (Insturment) conditions. It takes very little to make approach devices go haywire. You don't want this happening when the visibility is 500ft and you are trying to touch down 30 tons of aircraft in fog. It hasn't happened yet, but sooner or later some aircraft is going to crash on landing because some schmoe couldn't wait till he got down safely to call and tell folks he is going to be late for his meeting. In 99 out of 100 cases there may be no effect on the plane, but it only takes one crucial event to destroy an aircraft. Try to remember that.

  • by YrWrstNtmr ( 564987 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @10:48AM (#6963853)
    Why would you expect a 30 year old aircraft to be designed to filter out a particular RF frequency from a device that had not even been invented? Or some unknown combination of several devices, used in close proximity?

    Why not shield the individual electronics first?
    Case in point - radar detectors. They are supposed to be passive devices, merely sucking in the police radar, and warning the driver that he is being painted. But also, just as any other piece of electronics, they output a little RF on their own.

    Detectors have been built, and sold to police departments, that can detect this particular frequency RF. From 50 feet away, in a car moving at 75mph. Radar detector detectors. Virginia uses them. Look up VG-2. The state troopers have this installed in their cars, and can tell if your radar detector is on as you pass him by. A $95 fine.

    So the detector companies have been hardening their new models to mask this.

    Again, why not shield the individual electronics? Get them tested. Market them as "Aircraft safe".

    If making that phone call is sooo important, buy the slightly more expensive, tested and approved model.
  • Cargo planes (Score:3, Insightful)

    by jhines ( 82154 ) <> on Monday September 15, 2003 @11:06AM (#6964045) Homepage
    Does Fedex's (or any other cargo carrier) fleet have the same problems? I'd seems reasonable that they would have the same cockpit instruments, but wouldn't have any passengers with equipment. So they should have almost zero problems with avionics, do they?
  • by SavoWood ( 650474 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @11:07AM (#6964059) Homepage
    One of my good friends is a pilot for a major airline. He flies the transatlantic route to several points. Recently, we went to the Apple store near my home and he bought an iPod for him to be able to listen to his music on the flight.

    I asked him if it would interfere at all with the electronics of the aircraft since it was a fly-by-wire. He said there would be no problem and that he routinely used his laptop in the cockpit without realizing the WiFi card was in and on...transmitting and receiving (nothing since no WAP was available). The reason he wanted the iPod was so he could leave the big bulky laptop packed away and have only the "deck of cards" sized music player to listen to his tunes.

    He did note that his aircraft is fairly new and they were built with the thought of the possible interference and that if he were to be flying an old 737 from waaaaaaaaaaaaay back when, it was possible it might somehow interfere, but that cases like that were very rare. He said anything built since the late 70s should be able to handle the typical interference which might show up in the electronics.
  • by hoofie ( 201045 ) <<moc.mikdnaemearg> <ta> <emearg>> on Monday September 15, 2003 @11:29AM (#6964295)
    This is a PDF file of a study [] done by the CAA in the UK (equivalent to the FAA) on cellphone interference against instruments. It was done in a laboratory to model in-flight circumstances.

    To quote from the report (6.1) :
    The tests revealed various adverse effects on the equipment performance from simulated cellphone interference. Although the equipment demonstrated a satisfactory margin above the original certification criteria for interference susceptibility, that margin was not sufficient to protect against potential cellphone interference under worst case conditions.

    So until there is concrete evidence one way or the other, erring on the side of caution may be advisable - its also one of the last places where you don't have to listen to some dickhead chatting on the phone in a loud voice.
  • I'm a pilot. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by brundlefly ( 189430 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @01:20PM (#6965474)
    I'm a pilot. I have a cell phone. I have it set to vibrate while flying, so I can see who called (I call them back later).

    I've never seen interference with my instruments from this or any other cell phone activity.

    Doesn't mean it can't happen. Just means I haven't seen it.

    Oh, and by the way, we are all trained to handle such interference interruptions, and it's really no big deal when/if they happen. The instruments that you really need for critical situations (i.e. final approach and landing in fog, by instruments) are fairly inured to electronic failure (barring loss of electricity).
  • by sacrilicious ( 316896 ) on Monday September 15, 2003 @01:46PM (#6965757) Homepage
    Over the past decade there have been more than 100 incidents in Australia of navigation system failures, autopilot malfunctions, interference with radio transmissions, incorrect readings from flight management computers and false alerts from engine warning systems - all due to portable devices.

    Ten incidents per year (I wonder what percentage of Aussie flights that comprises) "all due to portable devices"... the article does NOT go on to detail that claim. It cites an anecdote in which one plane's systems are alleged to have come back online after a passenger turned off a device, then goes on to say that "on more than one occasion, laptop computers have been blamed for changing an aircraft's internal cabin pressure."

    The incidents, logged in an Australian Transport Safety Bureau database, have been collated for the first time and detailed in the latest edition of Flight Safety Australia, published by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority."

    Because the article authors didn't bother to include a link to the article, I'll assume that this [] is the one they're referring to. If so, this article does not in any way "collate" (collect) or "detail" them. It's a single-page article which is pretty much as insubstantive as its referer. It mentions a few anecdotes, then states:

    The CAA study focused on mobiles. Researchers hooked up a VHF communica-tion transceiver, a VOR/ILS (VHF omnidi-rectional radio/instrument landing system) navigation receiver and a gyro-stabilised remote reading compass system in a screened test chamber, according to the report, Effects of interference from cellular telephones on aircraft avionic equipment. They hit the avionic equipment with microwaves of mobile phone frequencies. Even in standby mode when an actual call is not in progress, a cellphone transmits periodically to register and re-register with the cellular network and to maintain contact with a base station, the report said. As the aircraft increased its distance from the base station, the output power setting of the cellphone was increased, eventually to its maximum rating, the report added. The risk of interference is then at its greatest.

    So they hit the equipment with waves, but what was the result? They forgot to mention specifics, such as "the equipment behaved unexpectedly". The paragraph trails off with the statement that "the risk of interference is then at its greatest".

    Next time you're on a flight and the plane suddenly begins to climb or pitch to the left, it's probably just the kid next to you conquering level 16 on his computer game.

    Or it might be the wind and/or the captain trying to navigate the plane to its destination.

    Laurie Cox, a spokesman for the Australian Federation of Air Pilots, said more research was needed into the effect of electronic devices.


    "You've got to ask, do you want to get there, or do you want to use your laptop?"

    No, I don't have to ask that. I've been "getting there" for years, while surrounded by people who use electronics.

    I'm not saying electronics don't cause interference. What I'm saying is that as yet there is no basis for concluding that they do cause interference, and because such evidence would not be difficult to produce I think passengers are owed more by the airline industry and FAA than having to rely on these panic puff-piece articles that come along to garner readership by stirring the shit with unsubstantiated claims. If the airline industry or any regulatory body cared about passenger safety, they'd do a real study. Failing that, the next best thing would be for the airlines to err on the side of caution and say "we don't know if electronics do or don't cause interference, so we're banning them to be safe"; at least that would be a

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