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Britain's CAA Considers Laptop Ban on Commercial Aircraft 384

Posted by chrisd
from the your-watch-sir-you-have-to-check-that dept.
hayb writes "An article in Britain's The Register claims that NASA and United Airlines have conducted tests on various aircraft and have found that ultra-wideband (UWB) devices "knocked out" collision-avoidance systems and impaired instrument landing systems. It states that the blanket ban on all devices in necessary because flight crews do not have the knowledge to differentiate between standard notebooks and ones with UWB devices."
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Britain's CAA Considers Laptop Ban on Commercial Aircraft

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  • But... (Score:2, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward
    ...if there's a blanket ban on laptops, how else are you supposed to keep warm?
  • Just today I noticed an article somewhere that was talking about the airlines hurting becuase business travel has gone down a good bit since Sept. 11 last year. (Business travelers are apparently the highest margin passenger class becuase they tend to book nicer seats and fly on shorter notices so they're higher up the essentially exponentail cost function correlating time-to-flight-from-ticket-booking and ticket price.) And now they want to eliminate laptop usage... Sure, I bet the suits and shiny shoes crowd will just looooove that.

    Not that I care though. If it's good for safety it's beyond question. And honestly, if you don't have your work done by the time you catch the plane to your distant meeting, the chances of you being ready are slim-to-none anyway. Hopefully this might be another wedge in the organizational door being held shut against the wide adoption of telecommuting.

    • These are exactly the people that are guaranteed to get a device with WiFi built in because the higher prices includes some "extras" they haven't really had time to explore.
    • Re:heh, way to go (Score:4, Insightful)

      by mikeplokta (223052) on Tuesday September 03, 2002 @07:02AM (#4187852)
      Not that I care though. If it's good for safety it's beyond question.


      It's certainly not beyond question just because it's good for safety. Safety at any price is a bad idea. If it costs $1 billion per life saved, you can save a lot more lives by spending the same money on preventive health care.

      • You're correct. I meant operating safety, namely the normal and reasonable amount of safety one would assume required in the course of the given action. (In other words, the safety one would take for granted when you're traveling hundreds of miles an hour, miles above the Earth's surface, in a hollow aluminum can filled with pressurized oxygen and awash in jet fuel.)
    • Re:heh, way to go (Score:3, Interesting)

      by sql*kitten (1359)
      (Business travelers are apparently the highest margin passenger class becuase they tend to book nicer seats and fly on shorter notices so they're higher up the essentially exponentail cost function correlating time-to-flight-from-ticket-booking and ticket price.)

      The reason business travellers are willing to pay for better seats is that they have the room to work on board the plane! There are other advantages too (fully flexible ticket, greater cabin allowance so you don't have to check luggage and can avoid reclaim queues, etc) but really, what matters is being able to work on board. You can get an awful lot done with no distractions between London and San Francisco, especially if you can time the flight to coincide with a working day - that's one of the reasons that companies foot the bill for business class. Work that you can do on board these days pretty much demands a computer. Ban laptops and two things will happen: business people who really need to be there will be sent coach, and everyone else will invest in videoconferencing.

      The one airline that's smart enough to train its cabin crew in what is acceptable or not is going to own the market.

      Not that I care though. If it's good for safety it's beyond question.

      What's "good for safety" is the plane never taking off. There is always a compromise between expediency and safety.

      And honestly, if you don't have your work done by the time you catch the plane to your distant meeting, the chances of you being ready are slim-to-none anyway

      That's not true either. Ever done business travel? It's common to get a template done at the office, get the very latest figures as assumptions that morning, and work them into your document on the plane. If it's just a transatlantic flight, you'll probably have to deliver that document or presentation as soon as you can get to the client's office from the airport.

      • When I was still in college a professor once said to us (a CS course, not that it matters): "If your project isn't done by midnight the day it's due, you're not going to get it done." The meaning being, if you don't have everything done by then the intervening eight or so hours will make little difference. The message is: have everything done at least a day before you need to, that way your preparation immeadiately before the event will just be relaxing. I've tried to follow this philosophy, and I've noticed that by and large it works pretty well.

        To draw a specific example, "the very latest figures" are probably either hastily done or haven't been error checked or both. Or, worse, VLF(0) has a bug, bug is discovered after you are in flight (semi-inaccessible), so you go into the meeting with a fistful of VLF(0) rather than what you really need: VLF(1).

        Yes, I've done business travel. Of course, that assumes you count my ssh packets going from Sendai, Japan to Houston, TX, USA as "travel". I really just don't think that a plane is a good working environment or that wise people would do vital work on the way to an engagement... seems too much like studying for the final as you walk to the exam. Save your company money, fly coach, and do your work in advance.

        • Save your company money, fly coach, and do your work in advance.

          That works for the occasional traveller, but there are lots of people who spent a significant fraction of their time travelling. If you're travelling twice a week, then 12 hours of imperfect productivity is better than 0 productivity.

        • "If your project isn't done by midnight the day it's due, you're not going to get it done." The meaning being, if you don't have everything done by then the intervening eight or so hours will make little difference

          You're assuming that the opportunity to work on the plane hasn't been factored into the plan. In general, it has.

          To draw a specific example, "the very latest figures" are probably either hastily done or haven't been error checked or both.

          An example of last-minute figures might be a company's quarterly statement filed with the SEC. The client needs the analysis as quickly as possible in order to make a decision. Or maybe the figures are delayed until the last possible moment so they can be error checked more thoroughly. Maybe a competitor has just made an announcement and you need to arrive at head office the next day with a response. These are all very common scenarios.

          What matters in business is not just accuracy, but speed. The best analysis in the world is useless if events overtake it.

          Yes, I've done business travel. Of course, that assumes you count my ssh packets

          So you haven't, then.

          I really just don't think that a plane is a good working environment or that wise people would do vital work on the way to an engagement... seems too much like studying for the final as you walk to the exam.

          It's not the same thing at all. The material to be examined is known well in advance (it might not even have changed for years). The material you work on onboard a plane often doesn't exist in a usable form beforehand.
    • And honestly, if you don't have your work done by the time you catch the plane to your distant meeting, the chances of you being ready are slim-to-none anyway.

      When I was "commuting" from Newark to SFO while working for InfoWorld, I would complete a column while in the air. (Toshiba T1100+ could run eight hours on a single charge -- amazing what a non-backlight display and no hard disk could buy you.) Climb on a plane with my research in hand (some printed, some electronic), get into Borland Sidekick, and have at it. At SFO, my editor would meet me at the gate, do a quick once-over while my bag was making it to the luggage carosel, then off to the office to uplink. Worked like a charm.

      When I was involved with the Telecommunications Industries Association technical subcommittee TR-30.3, the morning before the meeting was, er, interesting, as the committee members would organize an early-morning "Kinko's Party" so that everyone could get their contributions, honed and polished on the plane, printed and copied. A lot of V.34, for example, was done on airplanes.

      So, like most generalizations, yours isn't worth a damn. (With apologies to Oliver Wendell Holmes, and also to Mark Twain.)

  • More news at 5.
  • Eeek (Score:5, Insightful)

    by LBU.Zorro (585180) on Tuesday September 03, 2002 @06:31AM (#4187769)
    Does anyone else think that it should therefore be possible to create a small handheld device that say looks like a walkman/personal stereo, but contains an UWB transmitter? Activate it in a heavily traveled airspace and create chaos at best...

    Rather than just try and ban the devices shouldn't they be working on methods of blocking the signals? Or altering the collision avoidance systems to cope with the interferrance?? Doesn't this smack of really bad shortsightedness?? Even if UWB is several years away, spark-gap transmitters ought to be homebuildable and with far more power than the average UWB transmitter.

    I might be giving away ideas here, but doubt that terrorists read /. and that they couldn't have thought of it themselves :) In fact why bother being on the plane, have it in the baggage hold on a timer... It's not explosives, its a harmless walkman...

    Just a thought, these things crop up when people try one solution to a problem, but they are just trying to prevent it. And even though people say prevention is better than cure, cure is far more reliable.

    Z.

    P.S. Sorry to bring the 'terrorist' angle up again but this strikes me as a stupid thing to do, even if it never occurs. When you have people's lives at risk it ought to be cure, not a reliance on prevention.
    • Re:Eeek (Score:2, Funny)

      by evilviper (135110)
      You have a good point there... From now on, explosives will be allowed on commerical jets. I mean, hey, we should 'solve' the problem of jets being susceptible to exploding, rather than just preventing it from being an issue.

      That's not to say I wholly disagree with you, but somebody needs to post a dissenting viewpoint.
      • Have you ever been through customs? Last time I went (April) I had to bring my laptop and a projector. They put the projector through the xray and asked me to turn it on. They saw the LED light up, and that was it.

        They have no fucking clue what the guts of the thing was supposed to look like - I could easily have made it a powerful transmitter and nobody would ever know.

        Even funnier - I catch my second hop (flight within the US) and I see a guy with some kind of transmitter/receiver with suction cups to attach to the window. Needless to say, the stewardess noticed after awhile and asked him to turn it off. Course, by then we could have been all dead :)

        It's getting to the point where no electronics will be allowed as carry-on...
    • It is perfectly legal to carry an air-band radio transmitter onto a plane. I've done it several times. It's not legal to use on the plane unless the Captain agrees (and he usually defers to the company's rules - that is, he says "no"). But it is a good point, since you could transmit over many navigational signals with one, including things like ILS (Instrument Landing System). In theory, loss of any of those systems (it would be very hard to give false readings, as you would have to not jam but maliciously interfeer with multiple systems - you could break it, not make it give false data) would only result in the pilots implementing their emergency procedures...

      Of course anyone who has used a radio transmitter near a computer knows that it ain't good for the computer. A sufficiently powerful transmitter will cause computer problems. I have no idea how that would affect an aircraft fly-by-wire system, nor do I know what kind of transmitter would be needed to get through the shielding...
      • by Hallow (2706)
        Yeah, I used to live less than a 100 yards from the transmitter station for 4 local radio stations.

        I had constant computer problems, constant power problems, and my x10 stuff and wireless phone jack for my satellite wouldn't work. I could actually hear the main station on my corded telephone, and my cordless had a very loud hum to it. My 802.11b was slow as heck too (although there could have been other reasons for that).

        I moved to a new apt. complex when my lease was up, and I have no such problems at my new place.

        I say, stay away from radio stations and high voltage power lines if you want good wireless stuff, and don't want your hardware all freakin' out.
    • Or how about having a device to track down the signal so they can just tell the person to turn off their device?
  • Britain (Score:2, Funny)

    by nmg196 (184961)
    I wish he could spell Britain properly... I don't go around writing Amerwika do I? Especially since it's the article title...
  • This is why I believe CD-player equipments (w/ laser lenses) were banned in the first place... That was a while ago, though.

    The real annoying part about laptops in airplanes is the limited battery life. Where are power outlets when one need them the most !

    • Where are power outlets when one need them the most !
      Premium Economy/World Traveller Plus and above. Or at least if your Fly Virgin/BA.

      Ironically this move would hurt those users who are paying the most. And me when I get a seat with a non-functioning video screen.
  • "...because flight crews do not have the knowledge to differentiate between standard notebooks and ones with UWB devices."

    Two Replies:
    "Knowledge is Power"

    "Never Underestimate the Power of Stupid People in Large Groups"

    Seriously, did anyone else get the impression from this that we are going to be flying nude without carry-on bags of any sort in the near future?

    Considering how rare (nonexistent in the consumer market, according tot he article) these things are presently, why is this considered a problem that deserves such reactionary treatment as banning *all* laptops and PDAs? (Nevermind that if we want to treat this as a security risk there go calculators, game boys, and anything else that could conceal one of these things).

    More reactionary nonsense in the name of "security": I'm waiting for someone to attempt to hijack an airplane with their shoelaces (a garrote) and see how quickly it takes legislators to attempt to ban shoes.

  • Not allowing laptops to be carried aboard would be a very drastic measure. I protest. I certainly don't want to check in my laptop with the rest of my luggage because:
    1) Laptops are expensive and can be stolen
    2) Laptops are fragile. I have seen how airport workers handle the luggage. I shiver with the thought of them throwing my laptop bag around like a football ball.

    I think, a good compromise would be to allow people to carry laptops aboard but disallow using them at all times. Of course, the airlines could make a case for banning the laptops aboard by saying that they could be used by the terrorists to "knock out" whatever UWB systems that are vulnerable to this..
  • by seldolivaw (179178) <me&seldo,com> on Tuesday September 03, 2002 @06:41AM (#4187793) Homepage
    If I want to cause panic on a commercial aircraft, I no longer need to bring a bomb?

    "Stand back! I have a bluetooth device!"

    • I don't know if you'd even get to finish that sentence...
      • "Stand back! I have a bluetooth..."
      "Eewwww, get away! Heard of a toothbrush? When was the last time you used one??"

      "Blue tooth, huh? You really ought to see a dentist about that..."

      Another down side is that geeks talking about tech are going to be put in the same category as people making jokes about bombs, guns, and hijackings -- subject to summary arrest.

  • One of the airlines (in Europe) that i've flowned with (and which shall remain nameless) forbade the use of CD reading devices during any part of the flight. At first i tought it was just misinformation from the stewardess, but i checked the airline's magazine and there it was in the safety precautions section - no CD reading devices.

    I really cannot see what's the problem with CD reading devices. Maybe there's some BOFH like explanation, say:
    "Quantum coupled ressonance between the CD reading laser and the flight systems"
    • Just about every consumer electronics device with any sort of digital logic will radiate EM interference. One solution would be to design them with proper shielding and bypass capacitors on all connectors. That costs money, which the manufacturers will never spend unless they are forced to.
  • But between the tiny seats in couch, short battery life, the 10 minutes we actually get to use them, and jealous stares by other folk, I have just about given up on using my laptop on flights.

    If I plan on traveling in leasure, I have my wife drive or I'll take the train!

  • yes and no (Score:2, Insightful)

    by corian (34925)
    It states that the blanket ban on all devices in necessary because flight crews do not have the knowledge to differentiate between standard notebooks and ones with UWB devices.

    That doesn't indicate that a blanket ban is "necessary". That implies just that a blanket ban is either easier or cheaper for the airline than actually training their flight crews how to differentiate.
  • by Raetsel (34442) on Tuesday September 03, 2002 @07:00AM (#4187843)

    Okay, let me get this straight...
    1. FCC approves UWB devices for testing at power levels an order of magnitude less than is commonly believed to cause ANY interference,

      AND

    2. UWB devices have been tested, and found to interfere with the #1 topic guaranteed to scare large populations?
    What device did they test? Where'd they get these things? How can I know they didn't just hook up a 30KV spark-gap transmitter and go "See??? Interference!" (Booga booga booga!!)

    Oh, great. "UWB will cause a 747 to crash into the White House, curdle your milk, kidnap your virgin daughter and sell her to the Hells Angels, molest your wife, and defraud every company you've ever invested in!"

    Great, sure. The airline industry (like any industry) hates to spend money unless it's absolutely necessary. Look at the current state of US air traffic control. (Yike!) Heck, look up the state of aviation radios, even! There's a simple little thing called "heterodyne detection" that isn't present! (People have died as a result!) Yes, there are fancy computers, and GPS, and "glass cockpits" -- but there are some extremely basic technologies of aviation that haven't changed in 50 years simply because nobody has said "That's dangerous and idiotic, we've had better tech for a generation! Do it right!!!"

    On second thought... this is probably a good thing. It'll return air travel to its' proper place -- an enforced, several-hour vacation! Relax, look out the window, marvel at the world you live in. No phones, no computers, but lots of distractions. God forbid, you might even talk to your neighbor. (I wonder how many people even remember how to work with a pen and a piece of paper..?)

    • Actually, the fact that the U.S. ATC relies on "dated" technology may be the reason it's so successful. Can you imagine replacing a Vax or somesuch that's done its job faithfully for the last 20 years without a single reboot, with a modern Windows solution? I wince to think what happens the first time they get a system error, or someone mails klez to one of the ATC's, or worse.

      Dude, you're getting a Dell!

      • ATC Tech (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Raetsel (34442)

        • "...the fact that the U.S. ATC relies on "dated" technology may be the reason it's so successful."
        Oh God, thank you. I needed a laugh! "US ATC" and "reliable" in the same sentence, with a straight face even!

        To the regular person, I suppose ATC could be looked at as 'reliable' -- but go talk to a controller sometime; the people who have to present the aura of reliability when something fails. Ask him (or her) how often their radio breaks. Or how hard it is to get vacuum tubes for some of their equipment. Perhaps you could visit the vampires -- the people who sit in an almost completely dark room dealing with everything IFR (and VFR in controlled airspace). Everything is voice and paper -- it's a sobering sight. Yes, there is a lot of computerization, but the interaction goes

        • Pilot (flight plan) -> computer -> piece of paper -> controller <-> pilot!
          (Note the heads on the arrows.)
        It's a wonder these people stay sane sometimes.

        Canada privatized their ATC system, and (to an outsider) it has worked quite well. Communications systems are much better. The controllers don't have to keep track of planes on slips of paper, they can actually interact with the computer. One has to consider, however, that Canada doesn't deal with nearly the same daily volume of aircraft that the United States does, so their successes may not scale the way we'd need.

        I must admit that the last time I was in an ATC facility was before the whole Y2K thing, and a lot of money was spent to upgrade things for that particular scare. Perhaps things are better now, but ATC doesn't live on internet time -- so I doubt it.

    • by wowbagger (69688) on Tuesday September 03, 2002 @08:38AM (#4188091) Homepage Journal
      May I ask what you think you mean by "heterodyne detection"? Because all the aviation band radios I've ever designed test equipment for were superheterodyne receivers, just like any other modern radio.

      The problem with UWB is that simple fact that it occupies the same spectrum as everything else, by design - as a result it acts to raise the noise floor of all signals.

      This isn't a problem when you are dealing with a signal that is tens of decibels above the noise floor, but if you are dealing with a weak signal, like GPS, LORAN, or another aircraft's ATCRBS transponder where you only have a few dB headroom, you don't have any leeway for the noise floor to rise. It doesn't matter what supercalofragilistic sheilding you put on anything to keep unwanted frequencies out, because UWB occupies the wanted frequencies too!.

      And as for the tech in aviation not changing - tell it to the trial lawyers who pounce on any excuse to sue aviation manufacturers. If anybody introduces something new, and the plane it is in crashes, then the manufacturer will be sued for putting in "New, Experimental, untested technology!" - even if the reason the plane crashed was that the pilot was drunk, stoned, and inexperenced. So neither the manufactures nor the FAA will approve any new tech without giving it a multi-decade probe.

      Let me run the numbers for you on interference.

      Assume you have a UWB device at 10 mW output. Assume the bandwidth is 3 GHz, centered at 2 GHz. Assume the spectral shaping is rectangular. Thus, the energy is evenly spread from .5 GHz to 3.5 GHz.

      First observation: the signal overlaps the GPS frequency allocation.

      OK, now what is the power density? 10 mW over 3 GHz is 3.3E-12 W/Hz.

      Now, consider GPS. GPS signals are about 20.46MHz wide. That means our UWB signal will be producing 3.3E-12 W/Hz * 20.46 MHz = 6.8E-5 Watts of signal, or -11.6 dBm of signal. The signal you get from the birds is less than about -90 dBm. You UWB signal is over 80 dB HIGHER than the GPS signal. Even with the coding gain you get from the fact that GPS is spread-spectrum you are still 30 dB under the noise floor. That means you could reduce the UWB signal by 30 dB (1/1000 the power) and STILL swamp the GPS signal.

      UWB isn't magic - it doesn't magically pull bandwidth from nowhere, and it WILL interfer with other signals. You want to park the signal in a band nobody else is using, like up in the THz band, great! But don't put it down with everybody else, because contrary to what its proponents say, it does not play well with others.
      • by Raetsel (34442) on Tuesday September 03, 2002 @10:56AM (#4188849)

        I know exactly what I mean by "heterodyne detection." I refer to the capability of a circuit to detect when two transmitters attempt to operate on the same frequency simultaneously. The 1977 Tenerife airport crash of two 747s (KLM & Pan Am) is frequently used as an example of (1) a heterodyne happening (it was recorded on the cockpit tapes), and (2) the need for this feature so all parties are alerted to the event.

        Geez, you couldn't even type "aviation radio heterodyne" [google.com] into Google to see what I was talking about. Everything I've posted comes up on the first page!

        • Advanced Aviation Technology Ltd. makes a device for this purpose, their sales pitch [aatl.net] (section 3) describes the problem. (How nice of them.)

        • Salon posted an article about the problem [salon.com] on March 28th. Same example -- Tenerife airport.
        Over 500 people died in that fireball, and we still haven't standardized a solution. It's been twenty-five-and-a-half years! That's enough time to come up with a lawyer-resistant solution!

        Not going to bother bashing lawyers here -- this is Slashdot, feelings on that subject are well known.


        • "Let me run the numbers for you on interference."

        Um... no. Your numbers are way off the mark. Assumptions are dangerous, you have an internet connection, why didn't you use it? Google for "FCC UWB limits" [google.com] -- the first link is a whole set of info on power levels and spectrum allocation. Digging a bit deeper, you'll find:
        • "...For now, UWB communications devices will be restricted to intentional operation only between 3.1 and 10.6 GHz; through-wall imaging and surveillance systems restricted between 1.99 and 10.6 GHz (and used only for law enforcement, fire and rescue, and other designated organizations) and automotive radars restricted to frequencies above 24.075 GHz."

          Further, maximum output -- anywhere in the spectrum -- must be under limits set by part 15 (for now). That's -41.25 dBm/MHz.

        Further, since you seem particularly worried about interference with GPS, I point you to this PowerPoint presentation from IEEE [ieee.org], or Google's rather poor HTML translation of the same thing. [216.239.53.100] (It loses the graphics) The point? UWB is specifically regulated to stay out of the GPS bands.
        • I know exactly what I mean by "heterodyne detection."

          The reason other people don't is because the word heterodyne is more typically used to discuss combining two signals for some intended purpose - for example, the combining of a carrier signal and an audio frequency signal. So, it's correct to say that any AM signal is a "heterodyne happening." It's also correct to say that two overlapping AM signals are a "heterodyne happening." You can avoid vagueness by referring to the latter as "interference".

          It's not human nature to attempt to disect an already familiar word's base meaning when the context seems wrong.

  • Just make sure the UWB standards don't use any preallocated frequencies. And have hefty fines for making/possessing one that does.

  • Oh well, I just came off a transatlantic flight to London on the weekend and it looks like they give laptop power cords for anyone who needs them (even in economy - I may be wrong though)... so I guess they'd be plugging those up (so to speak), at least in British airspace.

  • by Effugas (2378) on Tuesday September 03, 2002 @07:07AM (#4187861) Homepage
    Once again, the equivalence of instability with insecurity rears its ugly head.

    What we appear to have is a claim that airplane electronics are extraordinarily open to interference from consumer devices. They are so open, that such devices may indeed accidentally trigger safety-critical failures in the operating environment.

    Lets assume this is true.

    Now understand, that which can be accidental does not need to be.

    If one can accidentally down a plane with a gameboy, it stands to reason that one may be able to intentionally down the plane with the very same gameboy -- easier, in fact, because the attacker knows exactly which frequencies to exploit. This is...disturbing. I cannot imagine it very difficult to stow any form of consumer electronics, even with a "time delay" activation, inside of luggage or carryon.

    Now, I'm not afraid of gameboys. See, I've *met* Boeing safety engineers. Hell, I've quoted em, learned a bit from em. Paranoid doesn't begin to describe them. These guys imagine everything, and implying that they didn't budget for even a miniscule amount of shielding and noise resistance...it's almost insulting.

    Hell, you don't see planes crash every time the sun decides to belch out a few terajoules of flare in our direction. Not to mention the basic design of a fuselage bears some resemblance to an EM-blocking faraday cage.

    Granted, it may very well be this same paranoia that allows those same engineers to say "Please, no new equipment, we couldn't test with that precise radio environment". The *world* is an unpredictable precise radio environment, and unfortunately, so now are its residents. I hate to say it, but if a plane can't survive a ringing cell phone, it ain't Nokia who's to blame.

    That being said, the UWB failure are interesting: If the claim is that UWB operates below the noise floor relative to a given frequency, then the question becomes how did the collision avoidance systems even *detect* UWB transmissions, unless they themselves operate in a baseband manner?

    One answer is that noise floors might be relative: A nearby transmitter emitting weakly across all frequencies might be overpowering the far away signal tranmitting on one. This is...hard to believe, but not impossible.

    I suppose that's my biggest problem with the consumer electronics ban: Since it's inconceivable that planes are actually vulnerable to random noise from consumer electronics, *all* device-level concerns become suspect. That's annoying.

    If somebody -- anybody -- has evidence they feel I should see, feel free to contact me here or in email.

    Yours Truly,

    Dan Kaminsky
    DoxPara Research
    http://www.doxpara.com
    • Now understand, that which can be accidental does not need to be.

      One factor that we must remember is that permission to use a device applies to all the passengers, but malicious intent is rare. It may well be the case that one or a few devices can be tolerated, but dozens or hundreds cause a problem. For example, the one cellphone activated by a terrorist may not do much harm, but when every passenger calls to say "we are just landing", that may be more of a problem.

      One passenger using one device may not do much harm, just as killing one whale, using one CFC aerosol, cutting down one tree etc. does not do much harm. If we want to be sure that the devices are safe, we have to think in terms of every passenger being wired up like a christmas tree with every combination of devices. It may be beyond the average, but I would not want to be crew on a flight taking people to the UberGeek Convention if there is no restriction on passengers' use of electronic and radiating devices.

    • by KC7GR (473279)
      Dan Kaminsky writes...

      Now, I'm not afraid of gameboys. See, I've *met* Boeing safety engineers. Hell, I've quoted em, learned a bit from em. Paranoid doesn't begin to describe them. These guys imagine everything, and implying that they didn't budget for even a miniscule amount of shielding and noise resistance...it's almost insulting.

      -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

      I can go you one better than that. I've SEEN the innards and design of lots of the "Black Boxes" that make up the core of modern avionics. I've also seen how the wiring harnesses are put together, and what's being used material-wise.

      If this UWB test scrambled something in the CAS or ILS, then either the test itself was seriously flawed or the UWB unit was spewing spurious signals. The avionics "black boxes" themselves are heavily shielded, and the cabling going to the antennas is a type that has two layers of shield braid. Don't even get me started on the grounding systems.

      Banning laptops entirely would be far too extreme a measure, one that (as others have pointed out) would tend to piss off an airline's most critical customers. Assuming this test was actually valid, I would say train the flight crews to check for UWB devices and be done with it. Radio transmitters (and some types of receivers) are already prohibited for inflight use. Let's leave it at that.

  • If a laptop can play havoc with navigation and landing systems, there is something wrong with the navigation and landing systems. Banning laptops isn't going to fix this. Installing shielding or more robust airplane electronics are solutions.
    • There is nothing wrong with the navigation and landing systems. Aircraft electronics equipment (avonics) is designed and built to a much higher standard than most electronics equipment. The problem is basic physics. An unintentional emitter that is a stone's throw away from the navigation and communication antennas can easily jam a 500-watt ground based transmitter that is 50 miles away. Before the age of microprocessors, there were problems with the unintentional radiation from the local oscillators in passenger-carried FM broadcast receivers jamming the radio equipment on aircraft.
      • The problem is basic physics. An unintentional emitter that is a stone's throw away from the navigation and communication antennas can easily jam a 500-watt ground based transmitter that is 50 miles away.

        Since radio follows an inverse square law you might have to knock the ground station up to several kW to get through the interference. In which case anything close to the transmitter now has to deal with too much signal strength.

        Before the age of microprocessors, there were problems with the unintentional radiation from the local oscillators in passenger-carried FM broadcast receivers jamming the radio equipment on aircraft.

        It looks like the lessons havn't been learned. Such problems should have been discovered at the prototype stage of the consumer device...
    • If a laptop can play havoc with navigation and landing systems, there is something wrong with the navigation and landing systems. Banning laptops isn't going to fix this. Installing shielding or more robust airplane electronics are solutions.

      Damn right!

      A year or two ago, I went to a lecture from an expert in radio interference from DERA (UK Defence Evaluation and Research Agency - the guys who write the UK's rules on this stuff) and he showed us a graph of the requirements for noise immunity (as in, if your plane's electronics can't take this level of noise at this frequency, it's grounded). Then he showed us the maximumoutput of a cellphone. In short: find me a plane which is genuinely affected by use of a phone inside, and I'll show you a plane which won't be leaving the ground any time soon...

      Not to mention, as others have pointed out, any aircraft system that vulnerable to interference is just begging to be knocked down by terrorists - forget planting a bomb, just get a little battery-powered RF transmitter on! A slightly modified electric shaver would probably do just fine...

      There is a genuine reason not to use cellphones in aircraft, though: cellphone networks are carefully designed to avoid frequency conflicts between towers with the phone being at ground level. Put a phone at 30,000 feet, and it "sees" multiple cells on each frequency - which apparently can upset the phone network.

      Of course, the airlines don't like you using phones (other than their $5/min "skyphones", of course) or anything else interactive, because it stops you buying expensive drinks (on domestic flights), duty free (on international flights) etc. How "convenient" that United just found a "safety" reason to stop you doing anything that doesn't involve paying them more money, huh?

      • There is a genuine reason not to use cellphones in aircraft, though: cellphone networks are carefully designed to avoid frequency conflicts between towers with the phone being at ground level. Put a phone at 30,000 feet, and it "sees" multiple cells on each frequency - which apparently can upset the phone network.
        Of course, the airlines don't like you using phones (other than their $5/min "skyphones", of course) or anything else interactive, because it stops you buying expensive drinks (on domestic flights), duty free (on international flights) etc. How "convenient" that United just found a "safety" reason to stop you doing anything that doesn't involve paying them more money, huh?


        The thing is that if you can connect a "skyphone" to the telephone network you could just as easily install a pico cell in the aircraft and have any phones roam onto that. (with the handset on its lowest power setting.)
        That way you can still charge whatever price you like for the calls, including incomming, but don't have to maintain what in some cases amounts to a large PBX.
  • This will not work (Score:2, Interesting)

    by david_e_v (42652)
    The thing is that, if you really want your laptop to emit these UWB, you can do it (you don't have to power off your laptop even if you have it in its case, you know).
    If there is really a case against the USE of laptops within the airplanes, there is an absolute need for some kind of screening system (we should be forced to put our laptops in special cases). If not, then this is just another case of false sense of security, and all this discussion is nonsense.
  • I mean, really, what this is really about is the airlines losing the 5-10 bucks they charge for those headphones so you can watch those sorry ass movies on crappy VHS.

    What they really want to ban is DVD players!
  • When your collision system bluescreens??
  • Fly naked (Score:4, Funny)

    by jukal (523582) on Tuesday September 03, 2002 @07:40AM (#4187924) Journal
    Actually, about everything you carry or wear might pose a risk to the plane. Imagine the electric shocks you can generate by wearing cheap nylon clothes and trying to find a good position in the lousy seat for 12 hours. The solution is simple: fly naked. Business classers could have a turkish sauna.

    This method could be first field-tested by a volunteer group of female flight stewards.

    • This method could be first field-tested by a volunteer group of female flight stewards. ...erm... and ME :)
    • Flying naked is not sufficient, and the FAA has known that for at least a decade! What we need is to strap people down into a small box that you then enclose in a sound-proof faraday cage. I'm disgusted that we fail to take these precautions. When will Washington wake up and understand that security is all-important because children are at risk!!!

      We also need to get luggage off of airplanes. It should be shipped by train and pass through customs, even for domestic travel.

      Consider this a modest proposal. :-/
  • by CoderByBirth (585951) on Tuesday September 03, 2002 @07:43AM (#4187930)
    ...but I'm still a bit amazed at how lightly people take issues like this.

    Your sitting in a metal crate with two giant combustion engines delivering an insane amount of power to get you off ground.
    A plane consists of several thousand electronic, mechanical, and electromechanical systems, a zillion bolts and hundreds of tonnes of lightweight metal. And any single part of this giant system might fail at any time.

    The fact that accidents don't happen more often than they actually do must be considered an engineering miracle.

    So, you can't smoke and sip a gin&tonic while writing some shitty design document nobody cares about and which you might as well write when you get there?
    Boo-fucking-hooo

    Read a book.
    • by Sycraft-fu (314770) on Tuesday September 03, 2002 @09:55AM (#4188468)
      "The fact that accidents don't happen more often than they actually do must be considered an engineering miracle."

      No, it's considered GOOD engineering. Believe it or not most of the high paid safety engineers that work on these things are not people that just assume that nothing bad will happen. Quite the opposite, they assume EVERYTHING bad will happen, and engineer for that. There are backups, failsafes, etc, etc. That, and the planes are checked and serviced all the time to ensure that all those systems are working as they should.

      The airline construction industry is NOT the comptuer industry, they don't jsut slap something together and see how it works in the real world. They design and test, and test, and test, and test.

      It takes a long time for a plane to be fully designed and tested, they have plenty of redundancy, and they are contiunally checked for failures. It is no miracle they don't fail often, it is good design and matenence.
      • What he said.

        Even small training aircraft such as the one I'm learning to fly in have redundancy of vital systems - two fuel pumps, two ignition systems, two radios.

        Aviation is very conservative. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" appears to be the motto. Any new development has to be proven to be just as safe as what is currently in use and fully ratified by the aviation authority of the country in question, i.e. the CAA in the UK, the FAA in the USA. So a new development in avionics can take years to come into practical use.

        That said, the technology is filtering down, so now you're finding light aircraft with glass cockpits (i.e. LCD instrument panels instead of dials), sidesticks, TCAS, HUDs etc.

  • by BigBir3d (454486) on Tuesday September 03, 2002 @07:45AM (#4187934) Journal
    All people are now banned from flights, as the security crews are not able to tell the difference between terrorists and regular passengers.

    This is how the slide starts....
  • by thogard (43403) on Tuesday September 03, 2002 @07:55AM (#4187965) Homepage
    ATC on many parts of the US and world is based on allocation of large amounts of air space for fixed times just like the old railroad lines. Its designed so that radio failure isn't a problem. Now that a generation of programmers have read Booch's book on OOD and know how to do air trafic control better than the old system we get all these new systems that work as long as all the gear works.

    Old the system made use of paper strips that track the planes. The cool thing about the paper system is that when the power goes out or the scope reboots or whatever, the controller has a bunch of paper strips to look at and know whats going on. All the controller needs is a radio and they can get all the planes down.

    Australia has a "modern" ATC system and I've got to talk to three different people to groups to fly into the general aviation airoport in Melbourne if I come from the north. In the US, that would be two. The controllers here out number the ones in the US and can't cope with a much lighter load. The new system for London has had major issues since it was turned on.

    General rules for programming have been discovered. Most of them have been used in the Kansas City freight yards for a long time.--Derrick Lehmer (1949) from Knuth Vol1
    • ATC on many parts of the US and world is based on allocation of large amounts of air space for fixed times just like the old railroad lines.

      Problem is that aircraft arn't trains. Also in old rail systems the trains would carry tokens, sometimes keys to unlock signalling systems.

      Its designed so that radio failure isn't a problem.

      Except that radio failure is considered an emergency, for very good reason.
  • by tlambert (566799) on Tuesday September 03, 2002 @07:59AM (#4187977)
    If this were really an issue, we would be seeing terrorists with small devices built into cell phone cases that were built using a switch, a battery, a capacitor, a coil, an electromechanical relay, and a large antenna loop: a spark gap generator, of the type one makes from Radio Shack project kits.

    Or, they would just have cell phones, since they are also supposedly a source of interference with something other than AirFone revenues ;^)).

    In reality, this article is _mostly_ bogus.

    The ILS (Instrument Landing System) is vulnerable to electronic interference, mostly because it is an incredibly ancient implementation, and has not yet been replaced with anything designed in the last two decades.

    The antique ILS in even the most modern aircraft is why you can't use electronic equipment during takeoff and landing (landing is obvious; so's takeoff, if you realize that it might have to be aborted, in which case it turns into a landing).

    Most airports, however, are in urban areas, with a high telephone cell density. If this were ever a real issue, we would see aircraft dropping out of the sky as they flew over any urban area. SFO, PHX, and SLC tend to have a higher than average instrument requirement (the first for fog, the second two for temperature inversion based wind shear; want to vomit? Fly Tucson to Phoneix. SLC also has snow visibility issues in winter). For most airports, the systems are largely ignored. SLC has an upgraded system that ~60% of modern planes can use, actually; it's a deployment issue.

    The TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System) is actually based on paired receivers. It's succeptable to powerful broad-band interferences; "powerful", in this case, means "orders of magnitude higher than the those currently permitted for use in UWB devices".

    The failure you would see (and you would probably need a specially manufactured transmitter to see it) would be a 180 degree polar flip (i.e. if the transponder you cared about were 23 degrees down and 17 degrees right, it would read as 157 degrees up and 163 degrees left). This actually happens a lot, and the hardware is built to automatically compensate through multiple samples (i.e. sustained interference is required).

    The fix for this is to go to trios instead of pairs of receivers.

    As we saw just the other week, though, TCAS itself is generally ignored in favor of ground instructions, we lost two planes in a collision in Germany specifically because TCAS was ignored.

    Given that TCAS is almost never used, anyway, because the controllers keep the planes far enough apart, the interference is isn't likely to be an issue.

    In any case, I think the overall concern is a result of the fear of out-of-spec devices, which met emissions at the time of manufacture, and have since, for whatever reason, ended if with a much higher signal strength.

    Personally, I think they are worried over nothing: it's just an uncommenly slow news day, what with most of the U.S. shut down for Labor Day...

    -- Terry
    • The reason they want you to turn off electronic devices during takeoff and landing has nothing to do with navigational interference. The flight crew wants you alert and responsive in case of an emergency (i.e. not unable to hear them because you're wearing headphones cranked up to volume level 10). The feed us this line of bullshit because if they told you at the beginning that 95% of airline accidents occur at takeoff and landing, they'd scare the shit out of the passengers. So instead they make up this excuse about electronic equipment to placate the sheeple. Frankly though its dumb because there's nothing to stop you from putting in your earplugs and sleeping mask.

      Some airlines in Europe won't let you use CD players, on the exact same aircraft used by US carriers that do let you use CD players.

      They should treat us like intelligent human beings...but I digress...

      If your walkman did interfere with the navigation system, they would probably ban them for the entire flight, as this article suggests for UWB devices. (and rightfully so, IMHO -- though I will be pissed if they tell me I can't bring my laptop) The FCC regulates the EM frequency spectrum for exactly this purpose...to prevent interference. The ILS in planes does not use the same frequencies as your cell phone. If random EM emission was a problem, they would never allow computers on board. (Do you have any idea how much EMF your average computer puts out? It's HUGE!)

      The other thing to realize is that the head of the FAA is a political appointment. The person in that position has never had any experience with flying planes or security. This is why they thought asking you if you had unknown crap in your bag was an effective security measure.

      -- Bob

  • To give you an idea of how resistant the airline industry is to common-sense upgrades to plane equipment, one of the old Ask the Pilot columns [salon.com] on Salon explained the cause of a runway collision that lost something like 500 lives. The radios they use in cockpits are walkie-talkie style, so when you're talking you can't hear anyone talk to you. One plane didn't hear the other saying it was still on the runway, because they both spoke at the same time.

    Seems like UWF devices will get in line by the time they're commercial, according to the article, so fine. But expecting the airline industry to train all its underpaid flight attendants to screen laptops would be a big expense in resources, and it sounds like they should really spend that money elsewhere, on some basics.

    • You're talking about the collision between KLM Flight 4805 and PanAm Flight 1736 at Tenerife on 27 MAR 1977. This is the worst aircraft accident of all time, involving two 747's, all 248 people on board the KLM, and 335 out of 396 on board the PanAm died. The cause [aviation-safety.net] of that accident was KLM starting it's take off without clearance. KLM did hear the tower send "Papa Alpha 1736 report runway clear.", and the PanAm cockpit return "OK, will report when we're clear". These two singals were enough to give the KLM flight engineer enough concern to ask the captain "Is he not clear then?", but the KLM captain overruled him. The radio collision was between the tower & the PanAm cockpit, not the KLM's cockpit, and therefore has little in common with walkie-talkies. The offical probable cause was therefore:

      PROBABLE CAUSE: "The KLM aircraft had taken off without take-off clearance, in the absolute conviction that this clearance had been obtained, which was the result of a misunderstanding between the tower and the KLM aircraft. This misunderstanding had arisen from the mutual use of usual terminology which, however, gave rise to misinterpretation. In combination with a number of other coinciding circumstances, the premature take-off of the KLM aircraft resulted in a collision with the Pan Am aircraft, because the latter was still on the runway since it had missed the correct intersection."

  • by gelfling (6534) on Tuesday September 03, 2002 @08:04AM (#4187983) Homepage Journal
    For shrugging off a command to open up and take everyting out of his wallet. He did it but his verbal response was "Yeah you got me I keep a rifle in there."

    It was on MSNBC I think. Coupled with airlines now charging up to $80 per bag to check the bag if it's over an arbitrary size and basically what you have is an industry that is committed to committing suicide. At this rate there will be 1 or 2 Long Distance Airlines that only carry passengers overseas or long distances from coast to coast or internationally outside of western Europe. And everyone else will do anything but fly, which will costs thousands of dollars anyway.

    It will be a return to the 1930's except we don't have trains in the US anymore so everyone will drive in Federally mandated 8 MPG land arks - one to an SUV by law. Once in a great while we'll look up and see a jet and it will seem as strange as seeing a hot air balloon or the Concorde today.
    • Once in a great while we'll look up and see a jet and it will seem as strange as seeing a hot air balloon or the Concorde today.

      I work under the flight approach to Heathrow and have a window (three in fact) facing the planes coming in, so I get to see(hear + feel, it is really loud) Concorde every couple of days.

      Neener, neener, neener !
  • Why can't they just build a UWB receive-only box, stick one on the plane and yell at anyone who flashes up as sending out a signal?

    Or, for that matter, build a better insulation system round the components before I just bring on a homemade electrical interference generator. Not difficult to generate RF noise, after all.
  • This problem goes way beyond WiFi PDAs. See this dated but still relevant [dallas.net] description of RF-based attack. We're really stupid to rely on avionics systems that can be so easily disrupted. Its only a matter of time before this becomes big trouble.
  • And people think Americans have no clue about the rest of the world. Surely not!

    (And they also say you have no understanding of sarcasm or irony either. How could that possibly be?)
  • Sure, it's easy to recognize a PCMCIA access device, but who here can easily recognize these devices when integreated into the computer. Sure, educate the flight attendant is one suggestion, but I don't think they should have to either a) learn all OSs in order to tell whether or not UWB software/drivers are installed and in use; or, b) partially dissasemble and recognized and UWB device by appearance. But, of course, as other people have been pointing out, UWB may start being in a variety of devices. What does this mean, no high-technology electronics on board at all?
  • RTFA (Score:2, Informative)

    by Observer (91365)
    The headline of the Register story was "CAA mulls ban on laptops which don't exist"; its first sentence says "Laptops may be banned..." (my emphasis).

    It's a story picked up from the London-based Times, which apparently quotes the UK's Civial Aviation Authority as saying "more research is needed".

    Throwing a few keywords at Google found this article [google.com] in Aviation Week's [aviationnow.com] online pages from June 17 amongst other stories. From this, it appears that the unexpected effects occured at much higher usage levels than would be typical in consumer devices and only under some usage scenarios. While it does sound as though the interaction between this new source of interference and aircraft electronics needs more investigation, gleeful /. extrapolations to hand-held open-spark transmitters appear unwarranted.

    Relax. The sky isn't falling yet.

  • by dloyer (547728)
    As a student pilot I have found that most of the technology used in aircraft was developed more than 20 years ago and is VERY slow to change.

    The non-military GPS signals used by aircraft for navigation are much weaker than the military versions that are designed to be jam resistant. They are little more than noise.

    There is talk about shutting down the old VOR based network of radio navigation since most pilots would rather use GPS. However, concerns about possible jamming of GPS signals has delayed the VOR phase out.

    Collision avoidance systems used in large comercial aircraft are based on transponder signals used by air traffic control, which are based on old WWII friend or foe systems. In order to scale up to high traffic levels, these systems now use a lot of signal processing that is noise senstive. Air traffic control sometimes see's "Ghost" aircraft that are artifacts of noise.

    So, eletronic navigation and traffic detection used in aircraft, large and small are vulnerable to incrased electronic noise. It is not unreasable that new uses of spectrium must ensure compatibility with existing systems.

    These aircraft systems will not change anytime soon. The industry is very slow to change due to the risk of loss of life and the lawsuits that would follow.
  • When I flew to China, I was told that no battery-powered equipment was allowed in the hold. I would never send a laptop in as hold luggage, well ... not again anyway.

    Ex-owner of a Toshiba Libretto.
  • by slykens (85844) on Tuesday September 03, 2002 @10:52AM (#4188807)
    Why aren't avionics systems properly shielded to begin with? Sure, most of the designs are at least twenty years old, but that's not an excuse to not be protected from even the chance that some sort of RF or EMP attack is possible.

    There's a story of how the US managed to capture a Soviet MIG sometime during the 70's (I think). They took it apart and found that the Soviets were still using vacuum tubes. The problem was not that the Soviets couldn't use microchips. They chose vacuum tubes to protect against EMP and to not have the added weight of shielding. I am not suggesting we retrofit modern airlines with vacuum tubes, what I am suggesting is that the dangers of RF and EMP attacks be properly accounted for, and if they currently are then to drop the bunk about "interference with navigation and communications systems."

  • Faraday Cage? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Omega (1602) on Tuesday September 03, 2002 @02:53PM (#4190584) Homepage
    This may seem a little naive, but why not just enclose the passenger cabin in a Faraday cage? Something like chicken wire should do fine. It could easily be concealed behind the wallpaper, carpet and overhead bins. Admittedly you'd have to do something about the windows, but this could easily seal-in most EM signals which harm airplane navigation systems (including cell phones).

    Or is there some reason for putting radio navigation receiving equipment in the passenger cabin?

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