Wireless, Interrupted: Overcoming Radio Frequency Interference in the Connected Cabin


    Image: Nicolás Venturelli

    APEX Insight: Inside an airplane cabin, passengers’ wireless devices may have to fight for limited radio frequencies to stay connected.

    If we could see the signals transmitted between our personal electronic devices, wireless access points and onboard servers inside a connected airplane cabin, it would look something like a laser show – laptops, tablets, wireless headphones and smartwatches all battling for bandwidth.

    Simultaneous video streaming, credit card swiping, mobile paying and health monitoring turn a copious wireless connection into a dwindling few megabits. It also increases radio frequency (RF) interference – not only are the laser beams crossing one another, the light pollution is obscuring the lines of communication between devices.

    Bryan Rusenko, APEX’s technical director, compares this dilemma to a typical scenario at a tradeshow where hordes of people are trying to connect their devices to the Internet. Wireless communication is no longer reliable in such a crowded space, he says. A booth demo run from a tradeshow hotspot can become an embarrassing display of poor connectivity.

    “Much of the older equipment simply ‘assumes’ [it’s operating in an isolated space], and that’s leading to a lot of the congestion and interferences that we’re experiencing, not just on the airplane but in general,” Rusenko adds.

    “The challenges and opportunities for airlines, in-flight entertainment and connectivity system integrators and device manufacturers are intertwined and complementary.” €” Jeff Drader, VT Miltope

    While most wireless devices operate in the unlicensed 2.4 or 5 GHz bands, new versions of Wi-Fi that would facilitate high-speed data-intensive applications for virtual reality and multimedia streaming in the 60 GHz band are on the horizon. However, Rusenko says it’s unknown how that would work inside an aircraft. For now, the workaround for RF interference is vendor coordination. “The challenges and opportunities for airlines, in-flight entertainment and connectivity system integrators and device manufacturers are intertwined and complementary,” says Jeff Drader, director of Business Development at VT Miltope. One device cannot run independently of the others.

    VT Miltope’s nMAP2 is a wireless access point developed specifically for the airplane cabin. It works in conjunction with cognitive hotspot technology, a software trademarked by Aoifes, based in Seville, Spain. Together, hardware and software work to optimize the wireless network performance by monitoring and sharing parameters such as data throughput requirements, channel availability, bandwidth utilization, client service location and signal-to-noise ratios. This captures information about the wireless environment before the technology operates in it – essentially acting as a traffic coordinator for the wireless devices.

    “Cognitive wireless technology is an attempt to put some intelligence into this [area],” Rusenko says.

    “Wireless, Interrupted” was originally published in the 7.1 February/March issue of APEX Experience magazine.