A plane with no wires or mechanical connections between its engine, navigation system and onboard computers – only a wireless network – has been built and flown by engineers in Portugal.
The 3-metre-long uncrewed plane "AIVA" relies entirely upon a Bluetooth wireless network to relay messages back and forth between critical systems – a technique dubbed "fly-by-wireless".
Tests flights carried out in Portugal have shown that the system works well. Cristina Santos, at Minho University in Portugal, who developed the plane, says the aim is primarily to reduce weight and power requirements. "Also, if you do not have the cables then the system is much more flexible to changes," she says.
Many modern planes already use electronic wires, instead of the mechanical links and cables found in older planes, to connect components. This is a lighter and more compact way to control these systems. Some planes, such as the Boeing 777 even use optical fibres, which can carry multiple signals through a single cable.
Replacing wires with wireless radio links is a logical next step says Peter Mellor from the Centre for Software Reliability at City University in London, UK, who was not involved with the project. But he adds that it raises completely new safety issues.
Such wireless links could be susceptible to electromagnetic interference or even jamming, Mellor suggests. And it could be more difficult to build in back-up wireless connections, he says. "If you jam one link you would jam both," he warns.
But Santos and colleagues are working on this. She says Bluetooth is already fairly resistant to disruption as it is designed to guarantee a certain minimum data stream will always get through. "It has mechanisms for dealing with interference," she says.
Even so, Santos says the system would need extensive testing before she would be willing to ride in a fly-by-wireless plane. She also admits that stringent aviation regulations may mean the technology first appears in cars rather than planes.
"Cables are already a problem in cars," Santos says, because many manufacturers cram ever more electronic gadgetry into each new model.
She admits the idea of having no physical connections may seem scary at first but believes ultimately it will become an accepted way to control brakes and even steering mechanisms in road vehicles.
The findings were presented on Tuesday at the International Conference of Robotics and Autonomous Systems in Florida, US.
Bluetooth seems like an interesting choice. Probably better than 802.11 standard. i guess laptops will be banned, or i hope they heavily encrypt the signal, or other nearby aircraft wont intecept it and receive its information...
[Edited 2006-05-16 22:28:48]