Captain’s log: iPad interference with avionics is ‘poppycock’

Alaska iPad.JPG

Apple iPads can be found in airport lounges. Apple iPads are being used as airport check-in kiosks. Apple iPads have been handed to flight attendants to personalize the passenger experience. Apple iPads are being distrubted to pilots to use as electronic flight bags (EFBs). At virtually every touch point in the travel experience – and inside the cockpit – the iPad tablet computer has taken the aviation industry by storm.

And why not? It seems to be the next best thing since sliced bread (and yes there is an app for baking bread).

The iPad is a transmitting personal electronic device or T-PED so naturally it is at its most useful, its most engaging, its most fantastic state when it is connected.

However, while connected iPads make sense for passengers, connected iPad-turned-EFBs for commercial pilots still need to jump a few hurdles. For starters, stakeholders need to be sure that iPads transmitting in real time in flight don’t interfere with avionics.

One long-time pilot, who flies for a major Gogo-equipped airline in the United States, thinks concerns about electro magnetic interference with avionics is a lot of stuff and nonsense, and, hello, would like to have access to the same information as passengers in the cabin, via an iPad.

Here’s our friendly captain’s take on connected iPads in the cockpit:

“The iPad has the potential to be very, very effective in our environment. I can’t imagine a scenario of a security threat. Elementary fire walls would take care of that sort of thing.

“What’s ironic is that we’re cruising along and I’m limited to looking at my forward looking radar looking 200-some miles ahead and looking at weather from that perspective instead of being able to access – like the person in first class or economy with their iPad or laptop connected to Gogo – all the things I like to access before I leave on a flight, like real time weather mapping. They have access to that in flight. I could do it, but it’s against our policies for me to open up my laptop and connect to Gogo, but it’s kind of ironic to me that we don’t have access to it.

“I’m thinking we could really, really harness that power and be so much better informed in the cockpit than we are now, and of course the company is looking at this as an end all and be all communications device.”

But, says I, what do you make of the recent kerfuffle regarding Wi-Fi interference with Honeywell display units (discovered during Gogo STC on Boeing 737NG aircraft)?

“I guarantee that every single flight there are at least a couple dozen devices that are ‘on’ from taxi to takeoff to cruise to landing to taxing in. I’ve never ever seen any evidence that a personal electronic device has any effect on navigation communication or displays. You could have a Ham Radio in the back and it wouldn’t affect us. There are many times I’ve forgotten to turn off my own iPhone and I’ve observed no in-flight abnormality whatsoever. This is one pilot that basically pooh-poohs the idea that these airplanes need to be hardened further, because I believe they are shielded enough today.

“If everything blanked out it would be very disturbing. If it blanks out and stays blanked out, then I’m concerned. Sometimes displays go a little wonky and then settle down. It has nothing to do with interference, but that’s the nature of the equipment.

“[Concerns over interference] is a bunch of poppycock. Then there was the Northwest Airlines crew that were supposedly busy on their laptops (I’m not exactly sure that was happening in that cockpit). The bottom line in that incident was not that they were using electronic devices in the cockpit. The problem was that they were completely oblivious to what the aircraft was doing. I’ve seen, over the years, we’re reading books and newspapers in the cockpit because, if you sit for many hours of flight and stare at instrumentation, that’s when safety is compromised because your mind is not engaged.”

Okay, okay. It’s all well and good to use a connected iPad as a Class I or Class II EFB, but what about Class III?

“If you’re plugging [your EFB] into the actual flight management system you’re definitely introducing possible threats and concerns regarding security and in that case, we’d have to have a separate data pipe and that may be what [naysayers] are thinking because that would be a way to keep us from surfing the web at will and checking our own email and going to personal sites.”

(Photo above from Alaska Airlines’ web site.)

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12 Responses to Captain’s log: iPad interference with avionics is ‘poppycock’

  1. Greg August 23, 2011 at 10:02 am #

    I’m really tired of hearing about airline pilots siting anecdotal “evidence” of use of iPads and iPhones and other electronic devices in the cockpit (either accidental or intentional) with no ill effects. Last time I checked, aviation training did not include courses in electromagnetics, antennas, or anything like that. Pilots are NOT qualified to make that call. Those rules are there to protect LIVES. Stop doing it!

    As an Electrical Engineer, I know electromagnetic interference is real. Shielding is only effective if it’s applied properly. Shielding in devices is applied by humans and human make mistakes. Also, shielding in consumer devices is not up to the same standard as shielding on devices DESIGNED for aircraft.

    Have you ever wondered why everything in aviation is so expensive? It’s because of all the precautions, redundancy, and certification work that’s required to keep your dumb ass safe in your job. So quit risking your life and the hundreds of other lives in your aircraft so you can surf the Internet while you should be monitoring the aircraft systems and watching for traffic.

  2. Airline Pilot August 23, 2011 at 12:51 pm #

    Greg,

    Dude. I really think you need to re-read what the pilot said. He did not say that plots should be allowed to “surf the Internet.” He said we should be allowed to access critical information that has a DIRECT impact on YOUR LIFE and the lives of those we carry.

    Pilots understand the public’s concern about being distracted while flying, and obviously, we expect some sort of barrier to keep us from “surfing” non-critical, non-flight related sites. I mean, come on. Mr. Smith in seat 1a is connected to the web, and he’s sitting 5 feet behind me.

    Finally, we pilots are tired of you non-pilots assuming that we don’t know anything more than how to fly… I’d say a majority of us have degrees in engineering, and, yes, even Electrical Engineering! So, I’d say that a lot of us have both “book knowledge” AND real world experience to judge these things. Now that you’ve had time to go back and reread the post, I think you’ll see that the captain’s point was that DISTRACTION is the real safety threat, not electromagnetic interference.

  3. Anon August 23, 2011 at 1:11 pm #

    The issue we have at our airline right now, is that the iPad does not run specific programming languages we need. The solution is to use a citrix client to a server at company HQ and run the software there. This required an active data connection of course, and comes with it’s own pitfalls. It’s definatly a temporary solution until the software catches up

  4. D Webb August 23, 2011 at 2:42 pm #

    you said kerfuffle :-)

  5. Mark August 24, 2011 at 10:14 am #

    Mary,
    I am sorry, but my choice would be NOT to board an aircraft with this Pilot.

    All Pilots should follow the safety of flight rules established by industry experts, to protect their passengers. This includes shutting off PED’s without any debate when directed.

    This Pilot should not be esposing they “believe [the aircraft] are shielded enough today”. Why?….because they are Pilots.

    I have met a couple Pilots that have BSEE degrees. They do understand what potential problems exist, the results of testing, and would be the last ones to make a statement such as the above.

    Let’s all have a safe flight.

  6. Uwe August 26, 2011 at 3:09 pm #

    “specific programming languages”

    What specific language do you have in mind?

    VBscript or similar?

  7. Bony August 27, 2011 at 7:37 am #

    Aron talk to us about a fully connected EFB…

  8. Dave P August 27, 2011 at 11:54 am #

    Interference is real.

    An electronic device in the pilot’s lap is 1-2 feet away from the vast majority of flight deck equipment, including the displays. The inverse square law says the electromagnetic effect of Mr. Smith’s device in row 1, 25 feet away, on the flight deck screens is 625 to 150 times less that of a device in the pilot’s lap.

    In my experience, pilot’s aren’t the most academically inclined people, this one especially (i’m being as a kind as I can – I refrained from using the “dumb as a bag of hammers I was going to use – bless his heart.) I’d be concerned if his attitude was widespread.

  9. Anonymous August 27, 2011 at 6:08 pm #

    Oooh… very clever, Dave P! Let’s see, you refrained from using the “dumb as a bag of hammers I was going to use – bless his heart,” but, used it anyway. Clever. Ad hominem attacks are commonly used by folks lacking evidence to back their comments.

    Talk about tunnel vision! Sheesh! I don’t think any of you super-smart cubicle dwellers can see the big picture. The point of the captain interviewed is that ANY DISTRACTION is a threat to safety. Pilots must always keep their situational awareness at the fore.

    Incidentally, most of the electronics that might be affected by EMI/RFI are located below and aft of the cockpit area, not IN the cockpit. Most of what we have in the cockpit are control heads and displays.

    Also, 11,000 iPads are being distributed to United/Continental pilots, using Jeppesen’s Mobile FliteDeck software. http://news.yourolivebranch.org/2011/08/25/united-airlines-uses-11000-ipads-to-take-planes-paperless/ Apparently, they are not too concerned with electronic devices within inches of their displays. And, yes, these devices are ON below 10,000 feet, as approach plates and airport diagrams must be referenced all the way down to touchdown and taxi-in to the gate. The Mobile FliteDeck software also has the capability to use the internal GPS in the iPad to display “own ship” position.

    Anyway, I’m not sure what the fuss is all about. Pilots just want to access weather info that is pertinent to the planned route of flight. That’s it. And they WILL be able to shortly. That’s a fact. How did this transform to pilot’s want to “surf the web?”

    Finally, it’s seems to me that the “concerned” commenters here are just frustrated ground-dwellers who wish they had our job. Bless your hearts.

  10. An Engineer August 29, 2011 at 5:45 pm #

    And bless Anonymous for flying the aircraft us ground dwellers designed and built for him.

  11. BW August 29, 2011 at 11:00 pm #

    The issue isn’t the use of iPads as EFBs. As portable electronic devices they are currently allowed no problem. The problem is that, because of the interference with the Phase III Display Units that was observed during EMI testing, use of Wi-Fi in the flight deck is currently not allowed for aircraft with these displays. So, if you are an airline with a Wi-Fi system and want your EFBs to connect wirelessly to the internet, and your aircraft have these displays, you are currently out of luck.
    A Class II or III EFB could use a wired connection to the internet via the aircraft’s Satcom or Air-to-Ground system, thus eliminating the problem – but of course the certification for these is much more involved.

  12. Mary Kirby August 30, 2011 at 10:46 am #

    I know I’m chasing a good story when nobody associated with the Honeywell issue – and I mean nobody – is willing to speak on record about the impact to airlines’ plans for real-time EFB. Thank God for good sources! Stay tuned for some follow-up.