A couple of days ago I was interviewed regarding a research project related to the fundamental communication engineering principles and algorithms for the next, 5th generation (5G) of cellular networks (5G). So what does this have to do with airlines? In the interview I am using an airplane to explain the concept of ultra-reliability. Namely, if we have extremely reliable connection ground-to-plane, then in principle we do not need to have a pilot onboard, the flight may be controlled from the ground. And how reliable that connection should be? A simple answer would be – at least as reliable as the psychological/health condition of the pilot. Unfortunately, the tragedy of Germanwings seems to be a consequence of exactly that cause.
Now I am even more convinced that the current paradigm of airline control should be changed and enable remote influence through extremely reliable wireless connections. Take the case of Germanwings. The pilot could not enter the cockpit, even if he typed in the security code, since from inside the cockpit another safety system was activated, namely the one by which the door is unconditionally closed in order to prevent a terrorist that would force the person outside the door to type the code. Now let us consider the hypothesis that the cockpit lock system has ultra-reliable wireless connection(s) to the ground (or through satellites) that cannot be disabled by the pilots. Then one or more persons on the ground could join the decision process, judge the situation and either let the pilot in the cabin or take control of the airplane (in the latter case, the wireless connection is not only to the cockpit lock, but to the whole control system). Of course, in other conditions the situation can be turned around – think of a case in which the bad guys are conquering the ground control center and they try to interfere with the work of the pilots in order to lead the plane to crash. This could be addressed by a careful design of the decision rules and having multiple diversified connections to different ground centers.
The original reason that lead me to think about ultra-reliable wireless communication with airplanes was the disappearance of MH370. I was writing about it here last year. This is an example of a case in which the communication to the plane is not sufficiently diversified, thereby leading to almost total silence of the plane (except the few satellite pings). But think now of a futuristic airline that is closely followed by a drone (unmanned aircraft system). The drone has has wireless connections to the ground or to the satellites that are independent of the ones from the passenger airline while, one the other hand, it also has a close communication with the aircraft. Hence, the drone is physically independent of the aircraft, thereby decreasing significantly the probability of simultaneous physical damage. On the other hand, the drone has almost full information about the airplane and can help in decision making (e.g. sensor failures in the airline) or, in the case of accident, as with MH370, track the airplane and provide accurate information about its whereabouts.
Indeed, the future airplane does not need to have a solitary flight, as it is the case today. It can have drones associated with it, which can be used to diversify the sensing and the communication. Clearly, most of the local sensor measurements at the airplane will not be correlated with the measurements of the nearby drones, but the diversified input can be quite useful in determining the situation at the macroscopic level (e.g. rapid loss of height). Another interesting use of the drone can be to serve as an “external black box”, logging the events from the airplane collected through a wireless link.
Besides the drones, another emerging technology that has the potential to change the airline industry is represented by the CubeSats or nano-satellites.Their low price and expected large number in the future may represent an infrastructure to which the airplane is always connected, which offers yet another level of diversification in the wireless connectivity for the airplane.
I think that the airline industry and technology should start to consider these wireless-intensive solutions and significantly improve the safety of the future airplane.