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Qantas Blames Wireless For Aircraft Incidents 773

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the lotta-finger-pointing dept.
musther writes "An Australian airline Qantas Airbus A330-300, suffered 'a sudden change of altitude' on Tuesday. "The mid-air incident resulted in injuries to 74 people, with 51 of them treated by three hospitals in Perth for fractures, lacerations and suspected spinal injuries when the flight bound from Singapore to Perth had a dramatic drop in altitude that hurled passengers around the cabin." Now it seems Qantas is seeking to blame interference from passenger electronics, and it's not the first time; 'In July, a passenger clicking on a wireless mouse mid-flight was blamed for causing a Qantas jet to be thrown off course.' Is there any precedent for wireless electronics interfering with aircraft systems? Interfering with navigation instruments is one thing, but causing changes in the 'elevator control system' — I would be quite worried if I thought the aircraft could be flown with a bluetooth mouse."
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Qantas Blames Wireless For Aircraft Incidents

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  • WTF? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by KGIII (973947) * on Thursday October 09, 2008 @09:57AM (#25314063) Journal

    If an airplane can have its control mechanisms interfered with by a simple wireless device then what the hell are they thinking?

    Shield that crap.

    If it is that delicate then don't use it - there are surely alternatives and surely my life should not depend on something so likely trivial.

    It could be said that, "Yeah, they cause problems and in the interest of safety we're going to ban them." Bullshit. That treats the symptom and is not a cure.

    • Re:WTF? (Score:5, Informative)

      by samkass (174571) on Thursday October 09, 2008 @10:05AM (#25314245) Homepage Journal

      It's important to note that in a modern aircraft, there is a closed loop between the navigation system and the control system. Almost the entire flight is flown by the autopilot based on GPS and other navigational aids. While most planes still have backup pressure-based altitude instruments, GPS is even used for altitude calculation.

      So I suspect it's not that the wireless is interfering with the fly-by-wire control mechanism, but making the navigation system think that the altitude is significantly off. Assuming that is, in fact, the cause.

      (I can confirm that on small aircraft wireless devices that produce a lot of interference can muck with electronic instruments, but I hadn't heard about it seriously affecting a large aircraft's systems before.)

      • Re:WTF? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by digitalunity (19107) <digitalunityNO@SPAMyahoo.com> on Thursday October 09, 2008 @10:11AM (#25314351) Homepage

        Even if you're right(I don't know shit about this stuff), the issue then becomes the software.

        If the plane descended so abruptly that it caused 70 injuries, then the software is to blame for not limiting ascent and descent in a more controlled manner.

        When a human pilot sees they're at 30k feet and wants to be at 12k feet, they do not plunge the plane into a nose dive.

    • Re:WTF? (Score:4, Informative)

      by aadvancedGIR (959466) on Thursday October 09, 2008 @10:08AM (#25314319)

      Unfortunately, it is always a tradeof.
      Modern airplanes have a huge length (and mass) of wires running trough it and perfect shielding (besides the cost) would add far too much weight. The solution used is to shield the calculators and use robust communication protocols such as ARINC A429 between them. Of course, even with no weight constraints, they still can't shield some captors for obvious reasons and usualy rely on redundancy to offset the risks caused by a polluted measurement.

  • Dear editors... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by aug24 (38229) on Thursday October 09, 2008 @09:57AM (#25314065) Homepage
    ...both links go to the same page. What is your problem with actually doing some basic checking, like following the links?
  • by nedlohs (1335013) on Thursday October 09, 2008 @09:57AM (#25314077)

    Why bring a bomb or a bottle of water when you can just bring a couple of bags full of wireless mice...

    • by MPAB (1074440) on Thursday October 09, 2008 @10:07AM (#25314289)

      Coming this summer: Mice on a Plane!

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by megamerican (1073936)

      That liquid bomb plot was complete BS.

      "None of the alleged terrorists had made a bomb. None had bought a plane ticket. Many did not even have passports, which given the efficiency of the UK Passport Agency would mean they couldn't be a plane bomber for quite some time," says Former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray [craigmurray.org.uk]

      None of the alleged terrorists were convicted of trying to blow up an airplane. It is kind of hard to blow up a trans-atlantic flight when you don't have a passport.
      http://news.bbc.co. [bbc.co.uk]

  • by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn AT gmail DOT com> on Thursday October 09, 2008 @09:57AM (#25314083) Journal

    Is there any precedent for wireless electronics interfering with aircraft systems? Interfering with navigation instruments is one thing, but causing changes in the 'elevator control system' -- I would be quite worried if I thought the aircraft could be flown with a bluetooth mouse.

    Well, Wikipedia has a great section [wikipedia.org] on this.

    Following from reading that, I would need to see whether Quantas planes have a lack of shielding somewhere that would make this a vulnerability. In the defense of so many airlines and the FAA, I will state that I would rather read a book than work on a laptop if it means reducing a very low risk. That risk being that I am operating in a range that interferes with a device that is crucial to flight and also improperly shielded.

    • by pla (258480) on Thursday October 09, 2008 @10:07AM (#25314297) Journal
      In the defense of so many airlines and the FAA, I will state that I would rather read a book than work on a laptop if it means reducing a very low risk.

      No. This has nothing to do with "I want to use my laptop/DS/phone, so make me happy as the paying customer", and everything to do with "if an unauthorized wireless mouse can bring down a plane, we need the entire fleet of such badly defective planes grounded and fixed yesterday".

      Seriously. Any system that can't deal with weak RF interference needs to hit the scrapheap. In any other industry, we'd see the customers suing - Imagine if Ford said using a bluetooth headset in their vehicles violates your warranty... They'd go bankrupt overnight. Only the fact that the aviation industry has slowly boiled the frog, making us expect horrible customer service at unpredictable (but high) prices, allows any of the BS we've put up with for the past 20 years (and the shout-and-taze squads aside, the airlines had problems long before 9/11).
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by abigsmurf (919188)
        You cannot protect entirely against RF interference when you have devices that rely on RF communications. You can only lower the chance/risk of something interfering by so much.

        If something is outputting noise at a frequency where a system needs to receive transmissions, all you can do is hope the noise doesn't drown out the transmission and that the error correction can cope.

  • by aadvancedGIR (959466) on Thursday October 09, 2008 @09:58AM (#25314097)

    "I would be quite worried if I thought the aircraft could be flown with a bluetooth mouse."
    Flown? No. Crashed? Maybe.

    Fixed that for you.

  • Cool... Or is it? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by d3ac0n (715594) on Thursday October 09, 2008 @09:58AM (#25314109)

    I'm not sure if I should be impressed that our aircraft are so advanced that they can be flown with commodity consumer interface tools, or frightened silly.

    Either way, I thought that all modern aircraft were "hardened" against interference from these devices, and that the UL listing on these devices specified that they cannot create interference? Methinks someone is trying to CYA by passing the buck to a mouse.

  • Wireless? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Genjurosan (601032) on Thursday October 09, 2008 @09:58AM (#25314117)

    The idea that a standard wireless device can cause a multi-million dollar jet for a loop says a whole lot about the design of these systems on-board. Why is it that my laptop doesn't go flying off my desk when I shift-right click is beyond me.

    In all honesty, can someone please explain how this could even remotely be true? Aren't these planes flying around at all altitudes with a multitude of radio wave radiation from an untold number of sources, both human and naturally occurring?

    • Re:Wireless? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by philspear (1142299) on Thursday October 09, 2008 @10:05AM (#25314227)

      In all honesty, can someone please explain how this could even remotely be true? Aren't these planes flying around at all altitudes with a multitude of radio wave radiation from an untold number of sources, both human and naturally occurring?

      Design flaw. Not saying that's how it is, but it doesn't seem impossible that this plane was poorly designed.

      A more likely possibility: the plane failed randomly, and scapegoating something was a more attractive alternative than saying "we have no idea why our plane failed, it could be anything really, maybe they all will fall."

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Xest (935314)

      More to the point why don't other aircraft interfere with each other either on the ground or in the air when they often fly/taxi fairly close to each other?

      If a wireless mouse just happens to be on the same frequency as a plane what hope is there when other planes are almost certainly bound to be on the same frequency as each other for internal electronic?

      The article sounds like FUD, I simply cannot believe modern aircraft are that prone to interference else I believe we'd have seen far far more incidents t

  • by rurena (1290568)
    These planes are usually hydraulic, i don't see how electronic transmissions effect fluid movement. The transmissions are also very localized so the person would have to be righ on the pump to make a difference. If they are fly by wire i doubt some mouse or wifi will interfere with the signal that is being transmitted via a cable.
  • Mythbusters (Score:4, Interesting)

    by DaMattster (977781) on Thursday October 09, 2008 @10:02AM (#25314173)
    I would say this claim by Qantas is highly suspect. The mythbusters did a special to debunk the myth of wireless device interference. Ostensibly, Airbus uses some form of protection for their avionics. If not, as others are sure to say, fly Boeing! A wireless mouse uses a very, very low transmission power. This is not to say that I am in favor of cell phones on planes. If you are going to be crammed into a hollow tube, the last thing you want to hear is someone yaking on their cell phone while sitting in a seat with a cushion so thin that you are really sitting on the seat frame.
  • Proof? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by I.M.O.G. (811163) <spamisyummy@gmail.com> on Thursday October 09, 2008 @10:02AM (#25314179) Homepage

    Until they backup their accusations, its just an attempt to divert responsibility instead of saying "Oops, we messed up".

    If it is a fact that a common wireless communication device can cause this sort of issue - why do they not have policies and procedures in place to prevent it? I'd say all blame still lands squarely on their shoulder - if some tool with a bluetooth headset can bring the plane I'm riding on down, you better believe I'm placing my faith in the airline that they take necessary measures to ensure that isn't possible.

    Seems a lot more likely they slipped on their maintenance schedule however and a component in the plane failed, simplest answer is often the correct one.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Xelios (822510)
      To be fair to Qantas all they said in this press release is that they're looking into the possibility as part of the investigation. Nowhere in TFA did they say wireless interference was responsible.

      Thanks again to the slashdot editors for the excellent headline and summary... where's my :rolleyes: emoticon?
  • If this was really a risk, shouldn't we be seeing wireless-device-based terrorist attacks?

    I mean, if a wireless mouse can bring down a plane, they're probably more of a risk than bottled water, right?

  • Unlikely (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Chairboy (88841) on Thursday October 09, 2008 @10:05AM (#25314229) Homepage

    The FAA has an advisory on PEDs (personal electronics devices) called AC 91.21.1b where they suggest that carriers set their own standards as to what PEDs are allowed and which are not. This applies to US planes only, but I mention it as a point of comparison.

    Whenever you read incidents of PEDs interfering with aircraft, it's important to note that they're pretty much all anecdotal. There's a story from 15 years ago where a pilot claimed that a laptop being turned on and off would toggle the autopilot disconnect, for instance, but when the airline purchased that exact laptop from the passenger and tried reproducing it on the same route at the same location and altitude, they were unable.

    Modern avionics are not very susceptible to interference like this. Qantas may have chosen this explanation at this point for the same reason that a software developer might claim 'alpha bit decay' (or cosmic rays) was responsible for an unreproducible software crash. No confirmation is guaranteed, and a negative result during a test doesn't prove that the theory is wrong.

    For my background, I've developed software, built programmable electronics, and installed avionics in aircraft. I don't claim to be an expert, but I've got a 'Bravo Sierra' alarm that's going off when I read this story.

  • by Willis13 (1357783) on Thursday October 09, 2008 @10:08AM (#25314315)

    "Terrorist hijacks Airbus with a laptop, MS Flight Simulator and a bluetooth mouse"

  • by RMH101 (636144) on Thursday October 09, 2008 @10:11AM (#25314359)
    It's the same one as the "I must be allowed to have my cell phone on in the hospital" argument. Put simply, in safety-critical situations, particularly highly-regulated ones, the default answer is "no". If you can't actively prove that it's safe, you don't do it. Saying "there's no way that..." doesn't cut it. Sure, it may be unlikely, but that doesn't mean there isn't some infinitesimal risk, and an individual with a cell phone or wireless device doesn't get to make the call - the airline, the pilot, and the civil aviation authority do.

    Personally, I used to support PC-based ECG capture devices. I used to really like taking people who claimed their phone had no effect on medical devices, and taking them to stand in front of an ECG monitoring screen and *showing* them the effect on the traces that it had.

  • Kidding me right? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by yoshi_mon (172895) on Thursday October 09, 2008 @10:15AM (#25314417)

    Sounds like a classic case of FUD to mask the real issue. Along with making sure that people stay scared about using electronic devices in plains.

    I hate to break it to the aviation industry but we are pushing along in the 21st century these days. They are going to have to design and fly planes with people using electronic devices. There is no reason why a modern aircraft should not be able to accommodate that within reasonable limits.

  • by McGregorMortis (536146) on Thursday October 09, 2008 @10:16AM (#25314431)

    In July, a passenger clicking on a wireless mouse mid-flight was blamed for causing a Qantas jet to be thrown off course, according to the Australian Transport Safety Bureau's monthly report.

    Safety investigators will now ask passengers if they were using any electronic equipment at the time of this latest incident.

    This seems like a rather dangerous way to go about finding the real cause. They are assuming the cause, and now looking for proof. They have confirmation bias oozing from every pore.

  • Cantenna (Score:3, Informative)

    by Dan East (318230) on Thursday October 09, 2008 @10:28AM (#25314699) Homepage Journal

    A simple directional antenna operating at a few watts from the ground could expose the avionics to many times more RF energy than these low-power devices inside the aircraft.

    In other words, if this was really due to RF, then terrorists would be dropping planes out of the sky on a daily basis with $50 worth of equipment and a Pringles can.

  • by Gordonjcp (186804) on Thursday October 09, 2008 @10:30AM (#25314729) Homepage

    How the hell can a *wireless mouse* affect the elevator controls of an aircraft? Are they somehow about a trillion times more susceptible to interference than the electronics in cars? Let's think logically about this for a fucking minute...

    You can use a mobile phone in a car, which has damn near every function controlled by some sort of electronics (well, if it was built within the last ten years). Despite this, cars don't routinely have all sorts of weirdass control failures caused by people talking on mobile phones, which may be using an output power of up to a few hundred milliwatts. They are *sometimes* affected by massive sources of very very loud RF, like military RADAR systems - there's a spot of German autobahn known for cars having mysterious electrical failures which clear up when the car is towed a kilometer down the road. No surprises here, there's a big RADAR installation *right by the road*.

    "But it's a wireless mouse, using bluetooth!" - okay, so that means it's on 2.4GHz. Fire up your laptop in the car. Weird electrical problems? Nope. Nothing. Right there you're using about 50mW of 2.4GHz RF, maybe up to 100mW depending on the card and local telecoms regulations. Get your bluetooth mouse out. Anything? Probably not - since they transmit in the order of a handful of *microwatts* of RF.

    Okay, let's look at the plane - I wonder if it's got any sort of digital radio transmitter on it? Oh, look, a transponder, and that puts out somewhere between 100W and 500W depending on the type. Ah yes, and an ACARS transmitter with at least 5W, possibly as much as 25W, again depending on the type...

    So, what are you saying here? Do you seriously expect me to believe that a wireless mouse operating in the microwatt range can affect the avionics of an aircraft, but *somehow* the aircraft's own very high power radio transmitters don't? There's probably more stray RF at 2.4GHz from the galley microwave.

    Saying that it was caused by a wireless mouse is unquestionably bollocks.

  • by Drakin020 (980931) on Thursday October 09, 2008 @10:46AM (#25314999)

    http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2006/10/30/ [penny-arcade.com]

    I can't believe no one has posted this yet.

  • by hAckz0r (989977) on Thursday October 09, 2008 @10:47AM (#25315005)
    Quantas thought they said:

    a passenger clicking on a wireless mouse mid-flight was blamed for causing a Qantas jet to be thrown off course

    What I herd was:

    "We make such cheap air planes that we can't even keep a normal level of Electro Magnetic Radiation from crashing it",

    ...and furthermore

    "We are inviting all terrorists to come and try to kill all our passengers and put us in financial bankruptcy, because we couldn't take the time and expense to use the proper shielded cables in our navigational wiring harnesses"

    Obviously they need to hire a few real engineers rather than just clueless mouth piece. Think about it this way;: The guys laptop, sitting less than a foot away (remember that r^2 EMI power density?), is much better shielded than the multi-million dollar air plane having countless human lives hanging in the balance on a daily basis? Darn, Where is my clue stick hiding these days...

  • True story (Score:5, Informative)

    by Knowbuddy (21314) on Thursday October 09, 2008 @10:57AM (#25315223) Homepage Journal

    My dad was an Air Traffic Controller and casual pilot for many years and now works for the FAA. I asked him this question, "can cellphones really interfere with a plane's instruments", just a few years ago. He told me this story.

    He was sitting in a 20-something-seater puddle jumper waiting to taxi out to the runway. The attendant had gone through all of the necessary checks, did the "turn off your portable electronic devices" speech, sat down, and buckled in. They all waited.

    A minute or two later, the captain came on over the PA and said: "Hey folks, it looks like we've got someone with a cellphone still on -- can the men check their briefcases and the ladies check their purses and make sure yours is turned off, please? We can't taxi out until they're all off." There was a bit of fumbling as people checked, then more waiting.

    The captain came on again: "Folks, I appreciate your patience, but it looks like we may have to deplane if we can't find that cell phone. Can everyone check one more time, please? Your phones need to be completely off, not just in standby mode." Again, there was much fumbling. This time, it was only a few seconds before the captain came back on. "There we go. Thanks everyone, that did it."

    The rest of the flight was uneventful, but my dad waited to be the last to deplane and then stopped to chat with the captain. He explained who he was and then asked, basically, if that was for real. The captain gestured to his copilot and said "watch this -- mine doesn't do it, but his does".

    The copilot pulled out his cellphone and turned it on. After a few seconds, several of the displays on the instrument panel started to twitch and do loopy things. The copilot switched the phone back off and everything went back to normal.

    Long story short (too late!), it may be the case with larger and newer aircraft that the instruments are shielded well enough so that the EM interference isn't an issue. But with at least some aircraft, it apparently is.

  • Mythbusters anyone? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by IdleByte (879930) on Thursday October 09, 2008 @11:00AM (#25315309) Journal
    Mybusters proved that cellular signals, even those jacked up 20x didn't interfere with ANY instruments in a Cessna, IN FLIGHT. I'm pretty sure that a wireless mouse signal is much more benign than that of a 20x cellular transmitter. There is no way a "Wireless mouse" did this. bah!

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