Friday, March 03, 2006

Cell Phones and Aircraft Navigation

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh have found that "cell phones and other portable electronic devices, like laptops and game-playing devices, can pose dangers to the normal operation of critical electronics on airplanes."

A press release issued by the University's Department of Engineering and Public Policy says that the risk posed by portable electronic devices is higher than previously believed. Research team member Bill Straus, PhD, an expert in aircraft electromagnetic compatibility at the Naval Air Warfare Center in Patuxent River, Md. says:
"These devices can disrupt normal operation of key cockpit instruments, especially Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers, which are increasingly vital for safe landings."
For their study, the researchers focused primarily on wireless phones, but discovered that emissions from other portable electronic devises were problematic as well.
With support from the Federal Aviation Administration, three major airlines and the Transportation Security Agency, EPP researchers crisscrossed the northeast United States on commercial flights, monitoring radio emissions from passenger use of cell phones and other electronic devices. They tracked these radio emissions via a broadband antenna attached to a compact portable spectrum analyzer that fit into an innocuous carry-on bag.
The researchers found that on average one to four cell phone calls are typically made from every commercial flight in the northeast United States. Some of these calls are made during critical flight stages such as climb-out, or on final approach. This could cause accidents, the investigators report.
The research team is recommending that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) coordinate their electronic emissions standards.
At the moment, there is no formal coordination between the two federal agencies. The researchers also recommend routine monitoring of on-board radio emissions by flight data recorders and deploying specially designed tools for flight crews to monitor passenger use of electronic devices during final approach.
Granger Morgan, head of the Carnegie Mellon department that carried out the study remarked, "We feel that passenger use of portable electronic devices on aircraft should continue to be limited for the safety of all concerned."

The feature article about this study, Unsafe At Any Airspeed?, is available on line in the March, 2006 issue of IEEE Spectrum.