You will never be far away from someone using their smartphone or laptop, other than on board an aircraft. For many years air travel has been a mobile phone free zone, as it was known that electromagnetic radiation, which both portable electronic devices (PED) and transmitting PED (T-PED) emit, could interfere with aircraft avionics in older aircraft.
However, modern aircraft can be assessed to show that T-PED and PED do not prejudice systems, and increasing numbers of aircraft are being fitted with Wi-Fi access and mobile phone access, as airlines respond to passengers’ demands for connectivity. US, European and other authorities have now authorised the use of PED or T-PED in flight mode (non-transmitting) while the aircraft is above a certain height, as long as the airline has demonstrated that T-PED and PED do not adversely affect aircraft systems.
Some of the latest modern aircraft are now fitted with WiFi and mobile phone GSM Picocell access via satellite link to allow Wi-Fi (notebook computers, PDAs etc.) and mobile phone calls to be made in flight. It is the airlines’ responsibility to gain additional aircraft certification for WiFi or GSM operation, to ensure the aircraft systems remains safe.
According to the Consumer Electronics Association, 80 per cent of passengers have already carried on board one or more PED, with 40 per cent already having used a PED during a flight. This therefore represents a burgeoning market opportunity for device manufacturers, as the airline industry is investing millions of dollars to allow Wi-Fi connectivity on board.
The combination of rapid developments in consumer electronics, the acceleration of Wi-Fi installations on board aircraft, and the large number of passengers carrying one or more digital devices, is creating a momentum that is seeing many in-flight innovations.
Nicolas Tschechne, Trend Research & Market Intelligence at Airbus, has stated that the anticipation of market demands for next generation aircraft will be the company’s main focus for the next few years, with the goal that mobile technology will meet airline technology.
Gogo provides a US ground-based cellular network, or satellite link technologies, equipping more than 2,000 commercial and 6,000 business aircraft with its services (used by airlines including Delta, Virgin America, American Airlines, US Airways, Air Canada).
Row 44 provides satellite-based inflight entertainment and connectivity solutions to commercial passenger aircraft, delivering high-speed Wi-Fi via the largest satellite ISP in the world.
Outside the US, mobile phone and WiFi services on-board aircraft are provided by companies such as AeroMobile (used by airlines including Virgin Atlantic, Lufthansa, KLM, Air France, Boeing) and OnAir (used by airlines including BA, Airbus, Emirates and Ryanair).
The dramatic growth of on-board TPED and PED technologies, means that aerospace manufacturers will see a growing demand for testing and safety compliance from airline operators, as they increasingly offer the connectivity service.
In the US, the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA) formed Special Committee 202 (SC-202) in May 2003. This was as a result of the FAA’s request that the RTCA establish a special committee to study and develop guidance related to the safe use of PEDs on board aircraft.
The committee published RTCA DO-294C, which provides consensus recommendations for facilitating the safe use of PEDs on-board aircraft. The document addresses near-term TPED technologies and recommends a process by which aircraft operators and/or manufacturers may assess the risk of interference due to a specific TPED technology within any aircraft type and model. It also provides a means for aviation authorities and others to determine acceptable and enforceable policies and processes for passenger and crew use of TPEDs.
In 2007, the committee published a second guidance document, which is intended to mitigate identified PED risks for "new" aircraft design and certification, and is entitled DO-307, Aircraft Design and Certification for Portable Electronic Device (PED) Tolerance.
In Europe, the European Aircraft Safety Agency (EASA) has provided guidance to aircraft operators on the use of T-PED and PED on aircraft and an assessment process via EUROCAE/ED-130 “Guidance for the Use of Portable Electronic Devices (PEDs) On Board Aircraft”.
The European Commission is also harmonising the technical rules for the safe use of mobile communication services on aircraft. This means that an airline will be able to apply in the country in which it is registered for a mobile telephony licence valid for the European Union (EU) as a whole. For example, this means that a Spanish registered aircraft will be able to offer mobile services to passengers without additional licence formalities when flying over France.
Using the guidance of the RTCA and EUROCAE documents, testing and analysis is required to address:
Intentional transmissions from T-PED causing radiated coupling to aircraft equipment and cables. Transmissions are simulated at levels that represent the cumulative effect of multiple devices at locations on the flight deck, equipment bays, passenger and crew areas and aircraft systems are monitored for any adverse effect.
- Unintentional (radiated and conducted) emissions from T-PED and PED – spurious emission coupling to aircraft antenna/receivers. Aircraft have their systems tested and certified to be compatible with unintentional emissions but during critical flight phases T-PED and PED must be turned off unless the aircraft has received specific clearance to ensure unintentional emissions cannot couple onto aircraft antennas. An analysis of the coupling paths is required for this process.
- New aircraft radio services (installed equipment, e.g. GSM 1800 picocell, wireless access points). T-PED are assessed as in 1 above, then transmissions are made at the installed locations of the WiFi access point antenna or picocell basestation antenna within the aircraft and aircraft systems are monitored for any adverse effect.
The impact of the testing on the aeroplane’s critical systems must be monitored with the help of observers, such as a flight engineer, a pilot, maintenance staff or technology specialist.
In-flight entertainment, wireless access and mobile phone calls on board aircraft undeniably represent a growth market, both in terms of giving airlines the opportunity to win client loyalty and profit from new technologies, as well as for technology manufacturers to support them in the expansion of services they can offer. The future development of the market and new technologies will expand passenger expectations and airline services, creating many commercial opportunities in this sector for the foreseeable future.