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Apple iPhone suspected of interfering with airline equipment in 2011 incident

post #1 of 81
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As the debate over use of portable electronics during takeoff and landing of commercial flights rages on, details of a 2011 incident suggest that an iPhone may have caused interference with the flight equipment on a regional airliner.

The compasses on the flight were behaving abnormally, sending the plane several miles off-course, according to a report published Wednesday by Bloomberg. But the systems apparently returned to normal after a flight attendant had a passenger in row 9 turn off their iPhone.

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An unidentified co-pilot who spoke to NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System suggested it was likely the iPhone caused interference with the plane's systems, as the timing of the phone being turned off coincided with when the navigational issues were resolved.

The incident is one of dozens of episodes where airline pilots, mechanics or other personnel believe that passenger electronics may have interfered with airplane systems. However, some major carriers such as Delta still support the relaxing of rules on use of personal electronics under 10,000 feet, noting that there is no way of verifying with certainty that those devices are actually the cause of any interference.

The Federal Aviation Administration has been leaning toward relaxing its current rules, which prohibit the use of most electronic devices ? including Apple's iPhone, iPad and iPods ? while the plane is under 10,000 feet. But proposed rule changes by the FAA have been held up by technicalities, and the desire to develop a concise, future-proof set of regulations.

The FAA has found itself under considerable pressure to relax the rules that require passengers to power down their devices prior to takeoffs and landings. It hopes to announce a rule change by the end of the year.

Apple's iOS devices include an "airplane mode" feature that turns off all of the wireless radios inside the hardware. But the term "airplane mode" can mean different things across different devices, making it more difficult for the FAA to adopt a standard that can apply to a range of devices.

Modern wireless interference are believed to be associated mostly with cellular radios. That's why airlines that use the iPad as an electronic flight bag do not use cellular-capable versions of Apple's touchscreen tablet.
post #2 of 81
And let's not forget Apple's assassination of JFK.

Unforgivable!
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post #3 of 81
Why do most articles discussing the topic of electronic devices on airplanes combine two very different things - devices with radios and devices without or disabled. I'm not aware of any serious discussion of allowing the use of wireless radios on personal devices during flights (despite that the current wifi / cellular Internet systems use the same technology) so I'm not sure what this situation - even if true - has to do with allowing the use of devices during take off and landing.
post #4 of 81
Quote:
Originally Posted by GTR View Post

And let's not forget Apple's assassination of JFK.

Unforgivable!

That made my day! 1smile.gif
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post #5 of 81

I've researched the cases of PED (Portable Electronic Device) interference reported in ASRS.

 

There have been everything from GSM buzz in the pilots' headphones interfering with hearing air traffic controllers, to navigation instruments acting up, to autopilots disengaging mysteriously near landing... all until some passenger turned off their device.

 

Recently Boeing engineers discovered, while testing a WiFi system, that some personal devices kept ramping up their signal and would cause the pilot's electronic displays to blank out.  They had to beef up shielding on those displays.  Imagine if that had happened in flight.

 

Probably the worst instances are when the TCAS collision avoidance system issued a bogus "descend!" command while flying low in the terminal area.  Fortunately the pilots ignored that command. (These false TCAS alerts make it appear as if another plane is right on its tail.)

 

--

 

 

Because interference is rare, and seems to depend on the device and where the passenger is in relation to wiring, it's difficult to prove anything after the flight is over.

 

Fortunately, so far there's been no deadly accidents attributed to PEDs, and so the FAA seems to be okay with not worrying the public.  (Similar to the way they refused to require fire extinguishers in the cargo hold for years, hoping that the odds were in their favor.) 

 

Someday we'll have planes that are perfectly shielded and/or use fiber optics for everything, but we're not quite there yet. 

 

--

 

That said, it's the lithium batteries that worry me nowadays.  There are ASRS reports of baggage catching fire while being loaded.   If that happened in mid-air, it could be disastrous.

 

(To those who do not know.  ASRS allows pilots to submit confidential incident reports without fear of reprisal.  This has allowed NASA to collect a lot of info that would otherwise never be known about.)

post #6 of 81
Why is there a question? Either devices do or don't cause the problems. Why is testimony needed? Why are there suggestions that maybe, it was likely, that the iphone caused instruments to misbehave.

The solution is simple. Controlled experiments. It's called science. Either iphones can cause problems or they can't.
post #7 of 81

Articles like this just make me glad I don't fly anymore.

 

If the hyperbole is true that an airplane can be rendered uncontrollable with a cellphone, that is truly bad engineering on the part of the manufacturer.

 

But it can't be proven.  If it could, the class action suits would be flying (pun not intended.)

post #8 of 81

My neighbor's house caught fire while I was brushing my teeth, when I put my tooth brush down, the fire department showed up. Coincidence?

post #9 of 81
Quote:
Originally Posted by GTR View Post

And let's not forget Apple's assassination of JFK.

Unforgivable!

 

 

I heard a rumor that Oswald used an early (very early) prototype… NAHW!

post #10 of 81
Quote:
Originally Posted by waldobushman View Post

Why is there a question? Either devices do or don't cause the problems. Why is testimony needed? Why are there suggestions that maybe, it was likely, that the iphone caused instruments to misbehave.

The solution is simple. Controlled experiments. It's called science. Either iphones can cause problems or they can't.

Exactly. This kind of anecdotal evidence is worthless. How could a distant iPhone even interfere with a compass??? Perhaps it gave the pilot cancer while it was at it? Let the scientists and engineers figure out what's true, and then make the rules.
post #11 of 81
"'no way of verifying with certainty" Hm, when lives are on the line, I don't need certainty. Caution is in order. If you can't stand to be without your connectivity for a few minutes, then take the train. If there was a way to easily verify that a device might be on but that all of it's radios are off, then sure let people use them. But until that's an option (which it's not because many people, in general, are too stupid or lazy to actually bother) then turn 'em off.
post #12 of 81

What's up with Bloombers vs Apple war? Is it some kind of (not to well) hidden agenda? When was the last time they published anything Apple-positive?

post #13 of 81

On the face of it, this claim is impossible.  We don't know the details of course, but an aircraft's compass is typically of the "bowl" variety and uses solid bar magnets.  The only thing that could affect it would be a very strong electromagnetic field or the presence of other bar magnets (very) nearby.  

 

It's also worrying how a co-pilot "... suggested it was likely the iPhone caused interference with the plane's systems, as the timing of the phone being turned off coincided with when the navigational issues were resolved."  

 

Whomever this person is, they certainly don't understand science, causality, statistics etc. I didn't think co-pilots were that dumb.  

 

It's almost (literally!) more likely that a UFO happened to pass by the window at the same time.  


Edited by Gazoobee - 5/15/13 at 7:29am
post #14 of 81
Terrorists can think about using it
post #15 of 81
Quote:
Originally Posted by NormM View Post


Exactly. This kind of anecdotal evidence is worthless. How could a distant iPhone even interfere with a compass??? Perhaps it gave the pilot cancer while it was at it? Let the scientists and engineers figure out what's true, and then make the rules.

The kick is the variability in testing.  For example:

 

http://reviews.cnet.com/2719-6602_7-291-2.html

 

Each of these phones has a different level and, not only that, different frequencies.  Aircraft are tested under specific flight conditions and any issues are known and pretty darn well understood under those specific conditions. Likewise, behavior on the ground can be markedly different than at 30,000 feet (for example radiation flux is much higher and EMI levels are higher at high altitude and also depend heavily on latitude) so system level ground testing is not always an option.

 

It is easy to say "Just test it" when you don't understand the parameters that need tested. What cell phones do you use? What mix of cell phone models, LTE, HSPA? HSPA+, 2G and/or 3G frequency bands do you test against?

 

And yes, I do this specific system and software interaction/debugging for a living.  I take all my electronic equipment to either OFF or Airplane Mode when I fly.

post #16 of 81

IDK about the iPhones but I know for certain that whenever I plug my Macbook into its power adapter, enough RF interference is generated that I lose my (over-the-air broadcast) TV reception.  Very annoying.

post #17 of 81
Quote:
Originally Posted by Gazoobee View Post

On the face of it, this claim is impossible.  We don't know the details of course, but an aircraft's compass is typically of the "bowl" variety and uses solid bar magnets.  The only thing that could affect it would be a very strong electromagnetic field or the presence of other bar magnets nearby.  

 

It's also worrying how a co-pilot "... suggested it was likely the iPhone caused interference with the plane's systems, as the timing of the phone being turned off coincided with when the navigational issues were resolved."  

 

Whomever this person is, they certainly don't understand science, causality, statistics etc. I didn't think co-pilots were that dumb.  

 

It's almost (literally!) more likely that a UFO happened to pass by the window at the same time.  

That was true 40 years ago. Compass position and output to the flight system is now output digitally and the electronics and communications could be susceptible to interference.

post #18 of 81
To me, it seems like it should be simple. Figure out however many radios there are, figure out how many different types of planes there are, test each plane with each radio. It'll take time of course. Also, don't worry about future proofing the regulations until after the whole country knows whether or not they can use their devices. They're showing how slow they're departments really are.
post #19 of 81
Quote:
Originally Posted by waldobushman View Post

The solution is simple. Controlled experiments. It's called science. Either iphones can cause problems or they can't.

Actually, there is no funding for the necessary experiments. Only some passengers are convinced that there is no correlation to personal electronics and air safety, and they are not willing to pay for the investigation. Personally, I would disapprove of using tax revenue to fund the study. Take off and landing are the most dangerous parts of air travel so any additional precautions taken during those times seems reasonable to me.

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post #20 of 81
I worked on navigational equipment for many years in the military both on the ground and inflight and also in a war zone. Is it possible there is interference. Yes? But given my experiences with pilots I have to say it is also possible that many of these cases have other more probable explanations.

We used to run all kinds of systems on many different frequencies without these kinds of problems. Another just as possible solution is piss poor maintenance of the airline equipment. Given that you don't even need electronic theory to work on this equipment I would put my money on that one. :-)
post #21 of 81
Quote:
Originally Posted by KDarling View Post

I've researched the cases of PED (Portable Electronic Device) interference reported in ASRS.

 

There have been everything from GSM buzz in the pilots' headphones interfering with hearing air traffic controllers, to navigation instruments acting up, to autopilots disengaging mysteriously near landing... all until some passenger turned off their device.

...

 

Really interesting info. (Thanks for adding to the conversation rather than just giving a reaction!)  Is this because consumer devices and plane communication share frequencies? Seems to me that they should be silo'd but maybe there are historical reasons that this is much stickier than I'm imagining it could be if we started from scratch. PEDs use so many freq bands and even under the best of circumstances things might interfere. Damaged devices (or deliberately modified) could cause additional complications. Scary stuff.

 

Now returning to the normal tone of this forum. Bah! It wasn't the iPhone. It was the Samsung components inside that caused it. Checkmate Samsung! :)

 

Edit: a few more very interesting comments. I appreciate the science!

post #22 of 81
Quote:
Originally Posted by mstone View Post

Actually, there is no funding for the necessary experiments. Only some passengers are convinced that there is no correlation to personal electronics and air safety, and they are not willing to pay for the investigation. Personally, I would disapprove of using tax revenue to fund the study. Take off and landing are the most dangerous parts of air travel so any additional precautions taken during those times seems reasonable to me.

Funding? WhoGAS about funding. The FAA should just order the airlines to do that testing and report the results by a set date if they want to continue to have the privilege of flying.
post #23 of 81
Quote:
Originally Posted by Steven N. View Post

The kick is the variability in testing.  For example:

 

http://reviews.cnet.com/2719-6602_7-291-2.html

 

Each of these phones has a different level and, not only that, different frequencies.  Aircraft are tested under specific flight conditions and any issues are known and pretty darn well understood under those specific conditions. Likewise, behavior on the ground can be markedly different than at 30,000 feet (for example radiation flux is much higher and EMI levels are higher at high altitude and also depend heavily on latitude) so system level ground testing is not always an option.

 

It is easy to say "Just test it" when you don't understand the parameters that need tested. What cell phones do you use? What mix of cell phone models, LTE, HSPA? HSPA+, 2G and/or 3G frequency bands do you test against?

 

And yes, I do this specific system and software interaction/debugging for a living.  I take all my electronic equipment to either OFF or Airplane Mode when I fly.

 

You can't turn off solar flares from sunspots, EMF levels many times higher than a battery powered cellphone.

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post #24 of 81

It would help had the reporter spent sometime doing research, aircraft autopilots aren't guided by compasses even in little single engine planes, let alone airliners. So if it effected the autopilot it would have had to interfered with the internal navigation systems. And maybe that's possible, but honestly then wouldn't every plane be seeing these issues on take off and landing with tall the Wifi and cell towers surrounding airports?? 

 

Makes a lot more sense that the pilots of this flight made a mistake and were looking for an excuse. Would have been interesting to see the black box data, showing how the pilots programed the autopilot vs. what the plane was actually doing...

post #25 of 81
This has been a top of discussion for like 5 years, extreme discussion for the last 2-3. So how is it that all of a suddenly we are hearing about this allegedly incident. But with no real details. IF it happened, incident reports would have to have been filed, the plane tested to make sure there was nothing faulty that made it suspectible to such interference etc. so we would know exactly which flight, date, type of plane, the names of the folks involved and for certain that it was the phone to blame.

And it would more likely be sourced from an FAA spokesperson not some 'unidentified' and possibly made up copilot
Edited by charlituna - 5/15/13 at 8:14am

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post #26 of 81
Quote:
Originally Posted by TeaEarleGreyHot View Post

IDK about the iPhones but I know for certain that whenever I plug my Macbook into its power adapter, enough RF interference is generated that I lose my (over-the-air broadcast) TV reception.  Very annoying.

But is that the fault of your MacBook, or perhaps crap wiring in your house

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post #27 of 81
Quote:
Originally Posted by bsenka View Post

Funding? WhoGAS about funding. The FAA should just order the airlines to do that testing and report the results by a set date if they want to continue to have the privilege of flying.

That is just silly. The FAA is the one who made the rule to begin with. Why should the airlines pay to fund the study? To be perfectly honest, in my opinion there are probably more important reasons to ban personal electronics during take off and landing than the supposed interference. One, the flight crew does not want people to use headphones during take off and landing because if there is an emergency they want the passengers to be able to hear commands. Second, they don't want small metal and glass objects sailing around the cabin in the event of extreme turbulence, and thirdly, they want everyone to be paying attention to all the other safety precautions during those times and not distracted by Angry Birds. There are a lot of idiot passengers, but you can't make a regulation that allows intelligent responsible people to have permission to use electronic devices and stupid people to be prohibited so they use the supposed "interference" justification to eliminate the other problems without having to explain all the reasons.

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post #28 of 81
Quote:
Originally Posted by Steven N. View Post

That was true 40 years ago. Compass position and output to the flight system is now output digitally and the electronics and communications could be susceptible to interference.

 

Well, according to wikipedia, "almost all" aircraft even commercial ones still use the bowl compass.  Also, the co-pilot in question specifically said that the iPhone affected the compass not the entire flight system output.  You could certainly be right, but I would argue that it's hard to tell based on what we have before us.  

 

I don't really care about the details beyond the fact that the whole report is just stupid anyway.  The idea that this simple correlation was taken as causal by the co-pilot is just wrong whatever the cause as many others have also pointed out.  

 

This problem has been around for over 30 years now.  I fail to understand why all the cabling and systems in something like a passenger jet weren't just shielded long long ago.  If all the wires and terminals were properly shielded, it wouldn't matter if there was a working cyclotron onboard.  

post #29 of 81
Seriously?
I think that serious people that have studied this stuff agree that a cellphone or a computer has no influence on place systems, let alone the compasses.
post #30 of 81

I don't know why anyone wouldn't trust their life to the guy in row 3 using the iPhone that was dropped last week. It seems to be functioning perfectly normally.

Really! What more proof do you want that it's safe to use?

post #31 of 81
Quote:
Originally Posted by Gazoobee View Post

This problem has been around for over 30 years now.  I fail to understand why all the cabling and systems in something like a passenger jet weren't just shielded long long ago.  If all the wires and terminals were properly shielded, it wouldn't matter if there was a working cyclotron onboard.  


Aren't they shielded? I thought they were.

Most companies don't allow cellphones because it would be annoying to have people constantly talking beside you, and I understand that.

post #32 of 81
This is stupid. Your modern car has more complicated electronics than the average plane. I don't phones being used as an excuse for cars crashing and ignitions going crazy. Just another example of a hyperbole antiquated law completey unfounded in any truth of evidence whatsoever.
post #33 of 81
Quote:
Originally Posted by hill60 View Post

 

You can't turn off solar flares from sunspots, EMF levels many times higher than a battery powered cellphone.

You are right and this is why incidence reports are much higher when doing flights over the poles (like Tokyo to New York flight routes) but those are a result of SEU induced by cosmic rays mostly.  Since EMI is additive, the combined impact of 100's of cellphones, tablets and laptops not in Air plane mode/OFF is still slightly higher than other other natural sources. Since I know for 100% fact that altitude has impacts on system reliability due to natural sources and there are trends that show slightly higher incidence rates on a full cabin VS an empty cabin, I will continue to turn OFF my laptops and take other electronics to Air Plane mode with the screen OFF during flight critical phases.

 

None of this is "PROOF" of what is causing the bumps in the night but remember, we are talking about 1,000's to 10,000's of thousands of processors per plane WITH 100's to 1,000's of planes in a fleet operating for 1,000's of hours each per year.  Example: A Fleet of 1,000 planes (all of the same design) with 5,000 processors per plane with a light operational 50% duty cycle will get you almost 25 billion processor hours of operation per year. Even with reliability in the 10^-9 and 10^-12 range, decreasing reliability by a small amount can greatly increase the number of incidences of things that go bump in the night. For one example, I have found a design that used the wrong design guidelines (using AHCT design guidelines for FCT logic for example) for the employed logic families making the circuits more susceptible to increased EMI.

 

No, you can's make airplanes 100% safe.  There will always be crashes and disasters.  You can do things that minimize the possibility of catastrophic failure.

post #34 of 81

Keep the ban. There's enough evidence that it can cause problems. And these sad pathetic screen addicts should be about to put their damn toys away for the 10 freekin' minutes it takes to takeoff and climb-out. Seriously.

post #35 of 81
Quote:
Originally Posted by kkerst View Post

This is stupid. Your modern car has more complicated electronics than the average plane. I don't phones being used as an excuse for cars crashing and ignitions going crazy. Just another example of a hyperbole antiquated law completey unfounded in any truth of evidence whatsoever.

 

Having worked with the auto-industry and extensively with the avionics industry, I will assure you, 100%, this is NOT a true statement in any way shape or form. 

post #36 of 81
Quote:
Originally Posted by Gazoobee View Post

 

Well, according to wikipedia, "almost all" aircraft even commercial ones still use the bowl compass.  Also, the co-pilot in question specifically said that the iPhone affected the compass not the entire flight system output.  You could certainly be right, but I would argue that it's hard to tell based on what we have before us.  

 

I don't really care about the details beyond the fact that the whole report is just stupid anyway.  The idea that this simple correlation was taken as causal by the co-pilot is just wrong whatever the cause as many others have also pointed out.  

 

This problem has been around for over 30 years now.  I fail to understand why all the cabling and systems in something like a passenger jet weren't just shielded long long ago.  If all the wires and terminals were properly shielded, it wouldn't matter if there was a working cyclotron onboard.  

 

The dangers of a small amount of knowledge. This information has to get into the flight computer and this has to go digital and/or analog through an A/D. Some systems will actually read the compass convert to digital, output to analog (to maintain system functional interfaces) and then have the flight computer re-sample the data. This changes from plane to plane and compass to compass.

post #37 of 81
I'm talking about when the phone is used in the car. I don't see the interactions. Phone has GPS and so does a plane. Completely unfounded. Phone has a transmitter so does a plane. Phone has a receiver, so does a plane.
post #38 of 81

Modern avaitions are mostly fly-by-wire. Electronic signals sent out to control various parts of the airplane. Any interference that disrupt that signal may cause problems. Most automobiles are still mechanically controlled. Plus you can pull over to the side of the road. The palne can't just pull over to the "side" of the sky to check things out.

Quote:
Originally Posted by kkerst View Post

I'm talking about when the phone is used in the car. I don't see the interactions. Phone has GPS and so does a plane. Completely unfounded. Phone has a transmitter so does a plane. Phone has a receiver, so does a plane.
post #39 of 81
Quote:
Originally Posted by AppleInsider View Post

[S]ome major carriers such as Delta still support the relaxing of rules on use of personal electronics under 10,000 feet, noting that there is no way of verifying with certainty that those devices are actually the cause of any interference.

 

Yeah.  Science is weak.  Best to stick with first-hand accounts from stewardesses.

 

edit: Emphasis added.

post #40 of 81
Don't buy it. You're telling me that a plane is so fragile electronically that a measly bluetooth/wifi/3G/4G signal interferes with it? Nope, all phones are FCC certified and do not spit out spurious harmonics all over the spectrum so as to create a beat frequency into the cockpit. Where's the antenna? - In coach mounted on the seats? And, do you realize the phone would have to be physically touching the compass before it would be screwed up. A compass is an electro mechanical device. For someone sitting in row 9, everyone on the plane would be fried from that much radiation.

This is yet another example of non-technical people blaming something (iPhone in this case) they don't understand.

It must be the iPhone, Android phones would never do this. /s
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