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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Flight of Technology

Air Date: Week of

Steven Cherry reports on recent research about the use of electronic devices, including cell phones, on airline navigation systems.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. You know the drill: turn off your computers, shut off your GameBoy, power down the iPod, and wait till the flight attendant tells you it’s safe to turn them back on.

But, for now, leave that cell phone in your pocket – it might interfere with the plane’s navigation system. Or so it’s been feared. Now the Federal Communication Commission is considering lifting the ban. Is it a good idea? Steven Cherry looks at the latest scientific research.

FLIGHT ATTENDENT: At this time all electronic devices including cell phones and two way pagers must be turned off and put away. After take off I’ll let you know when you may use approved electronic portable devices.

CHERRY: These days you can use laptops, DVD players, game machines, and PDAs during flight. And thanks to a recent Federal Communications Commission rule-change you can also dial up your cell phone while taxiing to the gate. Now, the FCC is considering allowing cell phone use in-flight. But are they safe? A few years ago, four researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, began to have some doubts. So, the group, headed by Bill Strauss, then a Ph.D. candidate, put a laptop computer together with an array of instruments to measure electromagnetic emissions.

(Photo: Dan Hyde)

STRAUSS: We used a portable spectrum analyzer with a broadband antenna, and a computer to drive the software to record all of the data, placed it in a small carry-on bag, and placed it in an overhead compartment.

CHERRY: Strauss now works at the Naval Air Warfare Center as an expert on electromagnetic interference. Over the course of three months in late 2003, he flew, and took measurements on, 37 different commercial flights around the eastern United States. His team has just published an article describing the research, which Strauss calls disturbing.

STRAUSS: The RF environment on board commercial aircraft was much more active than previously believed. For one thing, the navigational aircraft bands, particularly GPS, had a lot of activity which we believe was derived from cell phone transmissions, which we also were finding at quite a high rate – one to four per flight.

CHERRY: Strauss says GPS is becoming an increasingly important aid to pilots, especially during night and bad weather landings. One particular cell phone model, the Samsung N300, was notable for the way its radio frequency emissions interfered with GPS.

STRAUSS: The Samsung phones were basically emitting RF energy in the same band as the GPS navigational systems. The problem there is that the GPS system uses very low-level signals, and these were quite large signals, essentially blinding the GPS onboard equipment. So any aircraft that’s navigating using GPS navigation solely, or at least as a primary system, will have a very difficult time. Not so much of a concern at 30,000 feet when you’re going coast to coast, but a big concern if you’re using a GPS landing aid system and you’re coming in on approach.

CHERRY: And Strauss says the problems aren’t limited to cell phones.

STRAUSS: DVD players, laptops, GameBoys, the list goes on, are all electronic devices which emit some amount of radiation or of energy.

CHERRY: Besides their own research, the Carnegie Mellon team studied data compiled by government agencies, including NASA, which teams up with the FAA to run a database, the Aviation Safety Reporting System, to collect incidents reported by pilots.

STRAUSS: There was a child using a GameBoy, and it was causing a 30 degree shift in the navigational instruments. So the pilots came back and asked if they could turn off the machine, and the problem went away. And then they asked him to turn it back on and, sure enough, the 30 degree shift in navigation reappeared. It was pretty remarkable.

CHERRY: Strauss worries that these problems could fall into a gap between the FAA, which oversees airline safety, and the FCC, which regulates the airwaves. A spokesperson for the FCC’s Wireless Bureau says the commission regulates cell phones only insofar as they can interfere with cellular systems on the ground. Keeping on-board aircraft communications and navigation systems safe is up to the FAA. And the FAA doesn’t plan on changing its regulations anytime soon. A spokesperson, Les Dorr, says they’ve asked an aircraft industry group, the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics, or RTCA, to look into the question of electromagnetic device emissions.

DORR: We don’t anticipate changing our regulations because it’s still going to be incumbent on the operator of the aircraft, when you’re talking about an airline, you’re talking about the airline, to come to the FAA if they want to allow cell phone use and say, here’s our data, here’s our test protocols, and here’s why we think it’ll work. And then we want to have the data that we’ve developed via the RTCA, to compare that against and look at it and to have it to make an informed judgment.

CHERRY: Strauss, hopes the airline industry group will not only study the issue, but also collect more data. In the meantime, he’d like to see passengers better understand the risks of sneaking in those illicit phone calls.

STRAUSS: The RTCA group has previously published three reports. In all three of those reports one of their recommendations was to inform the pubic to a larger extent about the dangers of using the electronics. And the FAA has tended not to put that forth, I think mostly because they feared it would worry passengers unnecessarily. And, in fairness, the airlines are quite cognizant of what the dangers are, and they monitor the situation to the extent that’s reasonable. But I think some of the data I’ve come up with, as well as the NASA data and other things, have put a little bit different light on it lately.

CHERRY: The Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics report on electromagnetic device emissions and airline safety will be issued before the end of this year. Meanwhile, the FCC, which asked for public comments on the issue last year, has received eight thousand responses and is studying them

FLIGHT ATTENDENT: It is now safe to use your cell phones, but we do ask that all other electronic devices remain off until we arrive at the gate.

CHERRY: For Living on Earth, I’m Steven Cherry in New York.

GELLERMAN: Steven Cherry reports for Spectrum Radio, the broadcast edition of Eye Triple E Spectrum magazine. To find out more about cell phone safety visit our website, Living on Earth dot org.



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