While it has been known for some time that cellphones and laptops can cause low-level interference, no airline monitors such radio emissions during flight. Instead they rely on passengers turning off their devices during critical periods such as take-off and landing. But Uber told the InfoWar conference in Washington DC that the renewed terrorist threat means we should take seriously the possibility someone might intentionally interfere with the plane's instruments.
Currently, if any device being used by a passenger disturbs the normal operation of a plane, pilots have no monitoring system to tell them whether that problem is due to interference or a malfunction. This leaves aircraft wide open to attack from a device operated by a passenger.
For example, Uber says a terrorist with a basic knowledge of electronics could modify the circuitry in many common gadgets to create an electromagnetic weapon. Such a device might interfere with critical flight electronics, such as the guidance system that monitors the aircraft's "glide slope", which helps the pilot descend smoothly when landing. And at baggage check, even an electronics engineer might not be able to spot that an apparently innocent piece of equipment had been modified.
In 1996, the US Federal Aviation Administration funded a feasibility study by MegaWave Corporation of Boylston, Massachusetts, into ways of detecting interfering signals inside aircraft cabins. MegaWave developed a system that scans for a wide range of radio emissions inside the cabin, via sensors mounted above each passenger seat. This would allow the flight crew to quickly pinpoint the source.
But after successful demonstrations, MegaWave was told that the FAA was pulling the plug on the research. MegaWave spokesman Marshall Cross believes that it abandoned the project because no commercial air incidents have ever been attributed to interference from electronic equipment in the passenger cabin.
"They've given commerce a higher priority than safety," says Uber. "This is a clear threat that has not been taken seriously enough." The makers of laptops, in particular, heavily lobbied the FAA not to ban their equipment on planes . But Uber says no electronic gadget should be allowed inside a commercial aircraft unless the airline knows it's safe.
New Scientist issue: 14th September 2002
BY DUNCAN GRAHAM-ROWE
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