Wireless connectivity wave hits the aviation industry

 - May 9, 2008, 7:31 AM

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past few years, you’ll know that barely a day passes without news that some nifty new method of accessing the Internet has been developed, not to mention a bushel full of cool new ideas about what to do once you’re online. One of the newest elements of our growing dependence on the online world is wireless networking, or the ability to connect a laptop or palm computer to the Internet from anywhere with no wires attached and nothing more than a special modem card installed in the machine. The aviation world is beginning to take a hard look at this technology, but this time business aviation is not on the cutting edge, taking a backseat to the airlines.

At a recent World Airline Entertainment Association conference, Connexion by Boeing’s chief technology officer, Robert Dietterle, predicted, “In the future, wireless will be in every laptop and personal digital assistant (wireless networks cannot currently be accessed through a PDA). There will be a seamless integration and convergence of wireless connectivity and personal electronic devices (PEDs) so people are always connected, up-to-date and even more dependent on connectivity. The world will transition from always off to always on.” Phoenix-based Synergy Research Group expects the wireless networking market to have reached $2.2 billion in annual sales by the end of this year.

“Totally wireless” means a cockpit crew-member can open his laptop computer in a cab on the way to the airport to check the weather or file a flight plan, or check in on any other activity that might cause a last-minute itinerary change. A passenger can hold a wireless meeting at the airport while waiting for departure and have full access to his company’s network files with virtually the same security he would enjoy back at the office.

In flight, networking opportunities are just as exciting as ground-based options, but a bit more complicated, especially when wireless communications are concerned. Because of electromagnetic interference concerns, the FCC prohibits the use of any transmitting device–such as a cellphone or personal digital assistant aboard an aircraft once the doors are shut. FAR 91.21 makes aircraft operators responsible for the use of PEDs aboard their own aircraft once the doors are closed. Although some restrictions ease once the aircraft climbs through 10,000 ft, the ban still applies to cellphones and PDAs that use cell service to reach out to the Internet. Other PEDs or wireless networks may be used, but only after rigorous testing to prove they don’t interfere with onboard electronics–a major issue as more aircraft adopt fly-by-wire technology. Dietterle believes a public education campaign is necessary to inform travelers about how to use wireless devices, as well as their effects on aircraft operations.

Development of another new wireless networking technology–ultra wideband (UWB)– is questionable. In recent NASA and United Airlines tests, UWB knocked out onboard aircraft collision avoidance systems and rendered some ILS systems virtually useless. An FAA spokesman admitted that while there is no conclusive research that proves wireless devices interfere with aircraft systems, “We are erring on the side of caution.”

But despite these FAA and FCC restrictions, a few of the avionics manufacturers are charging ahead to certify in-flight-capable wireless systems. Tim Rayl, director of advanced products and programs at Rockwell Collins, said of electromagnetic interference (EMI) issues in general, “These regulations were written long ago. We need to recognize that there is a lot of supporting data from the transport side on EMI. These technologies are new, but it is not uncommon for regulations to lag technology. We feel we do know enough about wireless systems to run them safely on board an aircraft.” Rockwell Collins’ Global Office suite includes a wireless local area network (LAN) option. Boeing’s Connexion networking system, scheduled for service trials this fall and regular passenger service aboard a Lufthansa 747-400 next month, is also destined for business aircraft. Although Connexion’s wired network is fully certified, the wireless components are still undergoing validation testing. A Boeing spokesman told AIN, “Boeing is primarily focusing on the BBJ- and ACJ-size business aircraft, although a Gulfstream G500/550 installation is being considered as well. There has not yet been much customer demand for wireless technology aboard business aircraft, however.”

“The biggest surprise during the evolution of these wireless products and systems,” the Boeing spokesman said, “was that our imaginations were not big enough to imagine how much this might benefit not simply the passengers but aircraft operations. In fact, those operational savings may be more important than anything else. Today, when an airliner pulls up to the gate, [technicians] plug in a laptop for a service update. It is not tough to imagine all of an aircraft’s service issues being wirelessly transmitted ahead to the destination for technicians with necessary parts to be ready upon arrival, translating into fewer delays or cancellations.” On board the aircraft, too, an ill passenger could be outfitted with a medical vest that wirelessly transmits a variety of vital patient information to the ground. One aircraft vendor also currently offers a wireless fire detection system for some large aircraft.

Today’s wireless systems use a technology protocol labeled 802.11b, with a signal that does not depend on line of sight and works well through buildings and aircraft, delivering connection speeds of approximately 11 mbps–nearly equivalent to broadband. Protocol 802.11b uses the same 2.4 ghz frequency as most wireless telephones used around homes and offices, so some interference should be expected. Both Boeing and Rockwell Collins use a satellite pipe to deliver Internet information to the aircraft. Expect to see most new laptops equipped with 802.11b capabilities right out of the box.

Java Script with Your Java?

While wireless was originally developed purely as a business tool, systems have begun to take off in a direction some companies never considered…as revenue streams. Starbucks provides an eye-opening example. The chain of coffee outlets recently began outfitting all of its retail establishments with wireless networks for customers to pay for and use while sipping their java. In the aviation industry, much of the newest wireless networking is happening at major airline airports. Minneapolis St. Paul International (MSP) unveiled a new network last spring that now covers 75 percent of the airport’s gate locations according to Brian Peters, the airport’s assistant manager for airline affairs. “We hope to be at 100-percent gate coverage by next summer. The airport currently charges users $7.95 per day for access to the network.” Network cards are available for purchase at airport mall retailers.

MSP’s wireless network was installed by Concourse Communications at virtually no cost to the airport, whose existing infrastructure provided the airport’s share of the project. The total project cost was around $300,000, according to Concourse’s senior vice president for business development, Dick Snyder. “The airport, Concourse and the Internet Service Provider all share in the revenue from any network usage. That same option might be available for FBOs with designs on their own wireless network as an income source. A wireless network with two access points (antennas) for a 5,000- to 6,000-sq-ft building would cost in the thousands rather than the tens of thousands of dollars. The hardware prices make up only about 20 percent of the system cost. The rest is labor to install and pull wires.”

The Wireless Airport Association, an offshoot of the American Association of Airport Executives, is dedicated to the expansion of state-of-the-art wireless services at airports. The group says it is not currently working with any general aviation airports interested in developing wireless networks. Peters says MSP has not heard from the FBO on the field, Signature, about adding similar technology to its operation either. “If and when they do,” Peters says, “the GA side will need to build a network to standards similar to those of the one in the airline terminal.”

Network security is always an issue whether the laptop is wirelessly connected on board an aircraft or through a network in the terminal. Snyder reminded customers, “In a public application of a wireless network, people are in the open, on their own with no security provided by the system itself. They need to look at something like a virtual private network [VPN] between their laptop and their company’s network servers to provide a secure tunnel for all the information that passes between them.” On the airborne side, Rayl said, “When we use the airborne server and satellite feed, we’re transferring files using the same encryption software that would work on any normal network. On our side, though, we do add a firewall so that while the ground channel to the satellite is open no one can gain access to the information.”

Electromagnetic interference is another concern for wireless devices aloft. Rockwell Collins says its system is being looked at by a number of business aviation flight departments as well as regional airlines but admits the task of defining with the FAA which wireless devices are safe to use in the air has been an arduous but necessary task. Aircraft electronic systems are tested to exacting standards to control EMI, but most PEDs are not subject to the same sorts of certification. The less expensive the device, in fact, the greater the chance that device will cause a problem due to the low-cost manufacturing processes used to build it. But again, the only proof of EMI is anecdotal. In a recent NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) report, an airline crew at FL 310 watched all four EFIS displays begin flashing and blanking out. As the pilots searched for the cause, a flight attendant told the captain that two passengers were playing with walkie-talkies in the cabin. Once they were turned off, the problem disappeared.

Although much of general aviation is still suffering from the effects of September 11 and the severe economic slump, wireless is heading our way. And while the economy may slow it down some, observers say it won’t stop it. One of the best motivators for networking a flight department or fixed base operation is the relative simplicity–a few hours of work–of organizing a wireless access point to a corporate network, often for no more than the price of a few good laptop computers (which would include the wireless transceiver) and the laptop data cards.

“One of the challenges for establishing wireless technology in the FBO industry, though, is that facilities vary dramatically,” said Jeff Kohlman, principal at Aviation Management Consulting Group. “Take Minneapolis St. Paul International and Lawrence, Kansas, for example. Lawrence is in the middle of a cornfield with no DSL and no cable access, so no matter what kind of network you have, you can’t easily get to the Internet. Without that, what’s the point for a small FBO to make the investment? We are a very under-capitalized industry, and FBOs have always lagged behind on the technology side. A tremendous number of FBOs still don’t even use computers. Overall, the customer demand has simply not been created yet in many locations.”

The true demand for wireless networking on the ground and in the air may eventually emerge from corporate flight departments, but possibly not the way many managers envision it, especially since the airlines and the airline airports are on the cutting edge of ground-based wireless networking. The real demand for wireless networking may appear on an FBO or flight department’s doorstep one day unannounced when enough corporate passengers demand the service after becoming spoiled using wireless amenities in row 34 of a Boeing 777–the last place a business-aviation professional wants a passenger to enjoy something special.