September 24, 2023

FAA’s New Guidelines for Countering 5G Interference in Airplanes

The deployment of 5G networks is causing concern among some experts regarding its potential interference with airplane systems. 5G, the fifth generation of cellular technology, promises faster internet speeds and improved connectivity to millions worldwide.

However, the higher frequency bands that 5G uses, such as millimeter waves, have a much shorter range than previous generations of cellular technology. That means telcos will need more cell towers to provide coverage, and some worry that these towers may interfere with airplane navigation and communication systems.

FAA Requirements

US aviation safety authorities have announced plans to mandate that both passenger and cargo planes comply with certain guidelines by next year to counteract the potential hazards of interference from 5G mobile networks.

FAA put these requirements in place due to the discoveries that the newer wireless signals operate on frequencies close to those utilized by planes’ radio altimeters- instruments that calculate altitude over ground- which could cause them to malfunction.

Wireless companies are keen on a solution, as they have invested over 80 billion dollars in these new airwaves. The FAA has stated that these changes must be implemented by February 1st, 2024, per their notice on Monday.

The agency reported that it has observed around 100 incidents of erroneous data being displayed on aircraft navigation equipment and believes that this number will only continue to rise as 5G coverage expands across the United States.

According to the FAA, these errors, though seemingly insignificant, can have serious implications for flight safety. If pilots become desensitized to these false warnings, they may react slowly enough to a real emergency, potentially resulting in a catastrophic incident.

Despite the concerns, airlines face challenges in equipping their fleets with compliant navigation systems. Airlines for America, the organization representing the largest US airlines, stated that airlines are doing their best to ensure compliance but are struggling to keep up with the demand for new equipment due to delays in global supply chains.

The FAA estimates that out of the 7,993 US-registered aircraft needing updates, approximately 180 would require new radio altimeters, and 820 would need to add filters, at up to $26 million. Therefore, the agency urges the industry to take swift action to address this issue before it becomes a bigger problem.

Details of How 5G interferes with Airplane Systems

GPS signals operate in the L1 and L5 bands, close to the frequency bands that 5G networks use for communication. If 5G transmissions are strong enough, they could overwhelm or interfere with the weaker GPS signals, making them difficult or impossible for airplane navigation systems to receive and interpret.

The interference can seriously affect aviation safety, as airplane navigation systems rely on GPS signals for various important functions, such as determining the aircraft’s position, velocity, and trajectory. Additionally, this can cause problems for other systems that rely on GPS, such as Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) systems.

There is ongoing research on this topic to understand how 5G networks might interact with airplane navigation systems and to find ways to mitigate any potential interference. Some of the proposed solutions to this issue include using different frequency bands for 5G transmissions, limiting the power of 5G transmissions in certain areas, and using advanced filtering techniques to separate the GPS and 5G signals.

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