How aviation software is evolving to accommodate the 5G rollout - Embedded.com

How aviation software is evolving to accommodate the 5G rollout

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Amidst concerns that 5G signals could interfere with aircraft landing systems, developments in aviation software could eventually accommodate the 5G rollout.

As aircraft technology advances, so too does the adoption of the 5G standard, giving rise to a great deal of discussion about how the two technologies will be able to safely coexist. Since 2020, when the FCC auctioned off 5G spectrums, aviation specialists have raised concerns about the impact 5G signals could have on the aircraft industry. In particular, there are concerns that 5G signals could interfere with aircraft landing systems.

Despite technical risks, the aviation industry also appears to recognize that 5G adoption is inevitable. The conundrum facing aviators is how to adapt to the evolving 5G world without compromising key safety measures in their aircraft.

As the latest 5G rollout across the United States is imminent, we need to focus on where the evolution of aircraft software is going and how we can ensure the technology can develop efficiently but safely. Fortunately, there are developments in aviation software that could eventually accommodate the 5G rollout.

What are the 5G impacts?

The most pressing issue, again, is safety. The aviation industry has been experiencing increased FAA scrutiny over safety in recent years, and safety will very likely continue to play a defining role in future software advancements. In particular, new 5G telecommunications signals around airports can interfere with radar altimeters and potentially cause disruptions to semi-automated aircraft landing, which can greatly compromise aircraft safety.

Aircraft altimeters essentially work by transmitting radio waves to the ground. The time it takes for the radio waves to return to the aircraft helps determine altitude. Radio altimeters on US aircraft operate on a 4.2 to 4.4GHz band. The trouble is that the proposed new C-Band 5G service operates on a 3.98GHz, which some observers feel is too close for comfort. In essence, the thought goes that the altimeter signals could be disrupted, which could have catastrophic effects on planes during landings, particularly in low-visibility conditions.

So far, 90% of aircraft have been cleared to operate around new 5G systems, although several Boeing aircraft remain of concern. Solutions have already been proposed such as replacing the altimeters with others that are specifically designed to withstand 5G interference. However, the FAA has not announced a decision so far.

The new altimeters, aviators hope, will address the safety concerns about landing planes. However, this also means costly retrofitting in thousands of aircraft, which might not be the most effective solution.

Could Artificial Intelligence help?

Aviation is a multi-billion dollar industry that has the resources to attract the best specialists and latest technology. In short, we’re seeing some promising developments as aviators come together and find a solution. One way to address the issue would be through AI, which could help plane systems adapt regardless of 5G interference.

But first, some context. The safety specification called DO-178C, also known as the Software Considerations in Airborne Systems and Equipment Certification, is something all pilots are familiar with. The DO-178C states that safety-critical aircraft systems need to be deterministic; in other words software used in aircraft need to always yield the same result.

This might initially suggest that there’s not really any space for AI within aerospace, because AI is typically considered “non-deterministic,” since it can produce different outcomes based on input and machine learning.

Despite these initial concerns, specialists are now developing artificial intelligence that could allow for seamless 5G adoption within the aviation space while still meeting DO-178C criteria. In fact, a lot of commercial airlines have started to adopt AI technology since it can help streamline workflows, optimize the experience for both staff and passengers, and help to cut emissions.

It is this very type of bold, innovative use of technology that can provide answers to the pressing concerns facing telecommunications and aviators.

How can aviation benefit from 5G?

It’s possible that 5G, beyond the short-term inconveniences, will produce long-term benefits for aviation. For instance, we’re hearing a lot about how 5G might help to fast-track developments in automated aircraft. Should this become a reality, the impact on the wider aviation industry could be profound.

What’s more, 5G promises to enable technologies that will bring greater safety and security to the aviation process. Predictions for the 5G market in aviation are certainly looking good. A recent report by Future Markets Insight predicted that the 5G market might actually exceed a valuation of $7.8 billion at a compound annual growth rate of over 26.4% over the next ten years.

However, unpredictable external factors will likely play a role in the future of 5G in aviation. Just last month, the FCC acknowledged that the delayed launch of the SES-22 satellite may slow down 5G development. The launch is delayed because the technology uses Ukrainian aircraft for transport, which has now been inhibited by the war with Russia.

The bottom line is this. The rollout of 5G technology across the U.S.—including in our airports—is inevitable. What’s more, the FCC’s next mid-band spectrum auction has been confirmed for this summer. Aviation needs to find a way to both coexist with 5G and leverage it to the industry’s advantage.


Vance Hilderman is one of the world’s foremost avionics experts and is the CEO of AFuzion, which provides many of the leading aviation and avionics companies with knowledge, expertise, and safety-critical compliance training.

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