Wi-Fi weighs in as cost cutter for airlines

Shedding pounds isn't just a preoccupation of dieters, it is a prime concern for aircraft builders too. In a bid to reduce weight to the minimum they are considering the controversial move of getting rid of the huge quantity of copper wiring used in modern planes and replacing it with a series of wireless networks.

Shedding pounds isn't just a preoccupation of dieters, it is a prime concern for aircraft builders too. In a bid to reduce weight to the minimum they are considering the controversial move of getting rid of the huge quantity of copper wiring used in modern planes and replacing it with a series of wireless networks.

Users of Wi-Fi may be forgiven for wondering if this is wise. Reliability is not one of the defining characteristics of existing wireless networks, so employing them to operate a plane's flight systems might seem a little risky. But if they can be made robust, such "fly-by-wireless" networks have the potential to improve reliability and possibly even make flying a little less environmentally damaging.

Though fly-by-wireless is the ultimate aim, the first step along the way is likely to be the introduction of wireless sensors. Aircraft are already fitted with numerous sensors that provide information about the plane's performance, such as how efficiently engines are operating. Data from the sensors can also be recorded and used to alert maintenance crews on the ground to any abnormal events.

The principal motivation for getting rid of the copper cabling that is now used to collect data from these monitors comes down to weight, "which on aircraft comes at a premium", says Mark Begbie, director of the Institute for System Level Integration, a collaboration of engineers at UK universities in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Lancaster.

As the complexity of aircraft and their engines has grown, so too has the amount of wiring needed to monitor, maintain and control them. The trend is towards increasing the number of sensors in aircraft in order to improve the ways they are maintained, Begbie says.

This presents a challenge: how to prevent this ever increasing complexity from making aircraft heavier. Modern airliners already have several kilometres of wiring, says Myles Taylor at GE Aviation Systems, a maker of aircraft infrastructure in Bishop's Cleeve, Gloucestershire, in the UK. If you can replace this with a wireless system, you not only considerably reduce the weight of the aircraft and the amount of fuel it uses, but also make it easier to build and maintain.

The ability to mount sensors on many more parts of the airframe and engines could lead to design improvements in future aircraft that will cut their weight by as much as 15 per cent, says Roger Hazelden of British engineering consultants TRW Conekt. That could equate to a 12 per cent reduction in fuel consumption. Operating the plane wirelessly should cut the weight even further.

Any wireless network built into aircraft will have to be resistant to interference, not least from passengers' Wi-Fi devices and cellphones, and environmental effects such as lightning strikes. It will also have to contend with the possibility of a deliberate attack by hackers.

This should not pose insuperable problems, according to Tom Anderson, director of the Centre for Software Reliability, at Newcastle University in the UK. He says similar concerns were raised when plane-makers started to replace mechanical flight controls with digital "fly-by-wire" control systems, but proved unfounded.

Peter Mellor, formerly a researcher at the Centre for Software Reliability at City University in London, points to an as yet unsolved problem that could affect even the most interference and hacking-resistant wireless network. A strong radio signal could be used to jam the network by swamping its wireless communications, Mellor says. "You would effectively have a denial of service attack, which would be a very unfortunate thing to have on an aircraft."

We should not let the poor design of existing wireless networks put us off, Anderson says. Wireless doesn't have to be any less secure than wired networks, and is immune to some of the problems that can befall cabling, such as broken connections or short circuits.

Before any wireless system is implemented it will have to meet rigorous criteria set by bodies like the International Civil Aviation Organization. A working group of the International Telecommunications Union is currently examining the prospects for wireless avionics systems.

This was last published in September 2009

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