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cover story

Wi-Fi Takes Off
Safely Integrating New Technology Into Business Aircraft

Wireless Internet access may soon become as common aboard business airplanes as it is in coffee shops and hotels. With that, many owners and operators of business aviation aircraft find themselves in uncharted territory, as is often the case when new technologies quickly become in demand.

"About 85 to 90 percent of our quote requests are for high-speed data system installations with Wi-Fi access," says David Loso, manager, avionics sales for Midcoast Aviation, a business-jet maintenance center located near St. Louis.

"Wi-Fi" is a trademark of the Wi-Fi Alliance, a non-profit, global association dedicated to promoting the growth of wireless local-area networks, using a standard known as IEEE 802.11. That technology is the basis for the interface of a transmitting portable electronic device (PED), such as a modemequipped laptop computer, with the Internet. In addition to a Wi-Fi network, operators must also select a service provider to deliver Internet access to the aircraft. As wireless device usage increases, more passengers on general aviation aircraft want to bring their PEDs onboard, and therein lies the challenge.

The Regulatory Framework

"The FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] needs to be comfortable with the use of a PED using the maximum power output allowed under FCC [Federal Communications Commission] regulations," says Ric Peri, vice president for government and industry affairs at the Aircraft Electronics Association (AEA). "For this to happen, any installed Wi-Fi infrastructure (routers, external antennas, transceivers and associated wiring) has to be tested to show that it can interface with a wireless device at the device's maximum power output without impacting the aircraft's electronics."

The FAA, Peri notes, considers Wi-Fi a "new and novel technology" and has yet to develop a formal set of guidelines for retrofit or new aircraft installation. Instead, certification is currently done under an "issue paper" used by the Wi-Fi installer to indicate the project's compliance with FAR Part 25. "The issue paper is considered a stop-gap in the absence of a clear path to Part 25 compliance. Until the FAA issues more clearly defined guidance, the installers will have an additional burden of proof," Peri says.

In January, the FAA and the industry opened a dialog on the matter at an AEA Wi-Fi Summit in Kansas City, MO. As Peri reported, the outcome of the meeting was a commitment by the FAA to develop formal guidelines for certification of onboard Wi-Fi systems, although Peri added that the agency did not provide a target date.

According to the FAA, the issue paper applies to the installation of certified Wi-Fi equipment, specifying the testing that must be done by the installer to ensure that the equipment will not cause interference with onboard aircraft systems. The paper also is designed to show that the system performs its intended function, along with providing the basis for the operator to make the PED usage allowance determination.

The FAA cites RTCA DO-294 as the acceptable standard for an operator to determine if a transmitting PED can be used on the aircraft, and the standard outlines the test methods for making this determination. However, the agency said that by regulation, the aircraft certificate holder is the only one who can authorize the use of a PED aboard the aircraft – based on the maintenance provider's testing.

Testing and Approval

Gary Harpster, senior avionics sales representative for Duncan Aviation in Lincoln, NE, explained the testing procedure that is used to prove PED compatibility.

"A ‘rogue transmitter' is set up at each seat on the aircraft. When deployed, it will interface with the Wi-Fi router over a frequency in the 802.11b range, which simulates the frequency used by a wireless device. However, the testing is actually done to a limit of four to five watts of power, or about four to five times what the FCC allows for the 802.11 frequency."

Of primary importance, reported Harpster, is the autopilot, which must be activated throughout the testing. "For autopilots that can't be deployed on the ground, inflight testing is required," he explained. All documentation becomes part of a "system substantiation data package" included in the supplemental type certificate (STC) application. The testing protocol must be done for each aircraft make, model and equipment configuration.

The FAA's Transport Directorate in Seattle is solely responsible for Wi-Fi installation approvals, which Midcoast Aviation's Loso says can take months. "It's very likely that the FAA will come back to you with additional questions, and that adds to the approval time. Smaller shops that are not ODA [Organization Designation Authority] approved have waited up to nine months."

Jeff Saucedo, vice president of OEM sales for International Communications Group, the Newport News, VA specialist in aerospace communications integration, noted that an aircraft's age might also factor into the approval process. "Most newer aircraft are adequately shielded from any interference from Wi-Fi systems, but older aircraft will probably be subjected to more ground testing to make sure they are capable."

Saucedo added that when choosing a Wi-Fi system vendor, it is important to select one that is familiar with the overall testing and certification process.

"It's also essential to avoid commercial, off-the-shelf products, since they are not regulated to aviation standards," said Saucedo, whose company introduced its NxtMail server for small to mid-size business jets last year. "Also, make sure that the equipment's manufacturer is capable of installing it in a Part 91 aircraft."

John Wade, executive vice president and general manager for Denver-based Aircell, advised that when selecting Wi-Fi equipment, operators should first determine the connectivity services that will meet their needs. Today, the main networks are Aircell High-Speed Internet, Inmarsat SwiftBroadband or Ku band satellite. "The operator can then decide which equipment package is best."

Wade also noted that Wi-Fi is no longer just for the largest business jets. "Inmarsat SwiftBroadband and Aircell High Speed Internet have dramatically reduced the size and weight of equipment. For example, the Aircell High Speed Internet package weighs approximately 15 pounds and costs about $85,000 (not including installation). It provides a full-speed Internet connection and, at that size, is practical for business aircraft of all sizes."