April 20, 2005

Project aims for Internet to take flight


By DAVID BENSON Staff Writer (609) 272-7206

Taking the Internet to 30,000 feet is a rare combination of fun and safety. That's the vision the FAA William J. Hughes Technical Center has for aircraft, passengers, pilots and crew throughout the United States.

Ralph Yost, a Linwood resident and manager for the Airborne Internet project at the tech center, knows the freedom a wireless laptop brings a person when connecting to the Internet through hubs in bookstores and cafes. And, like most computer folks, he understands the sense of isolation someone has when traveling on an airplane, locked away from the network, separated by 30,000 feet.

Passengers miss out on streaming movies, e-mail, chat, even simple things such as Web surfing. More importantly, Yost said in a recent FAA publication, very little information can be updated digitally for the in-flight aircraft.

Enabling Internet access on aircraft would give the crew automatic updates of crucial data, such as the weather, turbulence and landing conditions at a distant airport. Connected aircraft also would be aware of one another, giving pilots a chance to maintain their airplane's distance from others.

Strategic Aeronautics is one of the companies working with the FAA on this technology. Tuesday, Jon Paris, a company spokesman, showed how a Net-connected plane could "see" another connected plane, the latter of which was idling on a runway.

"They're transmitting their positions," Paris said. "We can use that data to do things in uncontrolled areas." Air traffic controllers guide aircraft at busy airports and hubs, but smaller airports may not have a controller.

The speaker in front of Paris' computer barked out a warning as the first aircraft began its descent for landing. Moments later, it issued the warning again that the second plane was still parked on the runway.

In effect, connecting the aircraft to one another through the Internet is a way of giving pilots an extra set of eyes.

"With this kind of technology," Paris said, "runway collisions can be eliminated."

While Airborne Internet isn't yet used in commercial aircraft, Yost said some private companies have built their own networks. "They're proprietary networks," Yost said. "They cost about $600,000 each."

Yost's plan is to bring the price down by passing on some of the cost to the consumer, a revenue stream for airline companies. While you would pay to check your e-mail at 30,000 feet, at least you would have the chance to do so.

For more information, visit the Web site, www.airborneinternet.com

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