Last updated: 07:12 PM ET, Wed October 26 2016

The Connected Aircraft of The Future: Is It Safe?

Airlines & Airports Paul Thompson October 26, 2016

The Connected Aircraft of The Future: Is It Safe?

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

Wi-Fi has now been available on commercial airline flights for a decade or so, and most of us have come to expect its availability when we travel. But in the evolving Internet of Things (IoT) world, there are so many other potential applications for the use of connectivity at cruising altitude.

When one hears the phrase “connected aircraft,” the image of a plane flying by seven miles overhead with a LAN cable dangling to a base station on the ground may easily pop into your mind. But that phrase has been the source of all of the buzz at airline trade conventions for the past few years.

The 2014 disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 was a wake-up call for the aviation industry. Airlines, satellite communications companies, and even the “Black Box” companies have since rallied to create programs by which a plane can now live-stream all sorts of data back to the ground while in flight. Not just the plane’s precise location, but also all of the other data such as flight controls from the cockpit. It goes without saying that these functions would have been really handy in the MH370 investigation, and we would probably know a lot more about how it went down. Doha-based Qatar Airways became the first airline to adopt this functionality, last year.

Pilots also benefit from aircraft connectivity, because it allows them to receive weather data in real time. Historically, pilots received a printed weather report before the depart. But as everyone knows, weather is a constantly changing scenario, sometimes very rapidly. On long flights, pilots would often encounter weather that wasn't there when they departed a few hours ago. Pilots can now receive updated weather graphics during the flight, which not only makes the flight safer, it also makes the flight more comfortable when they are aware of turbulence ahead of time and are able to avoid it.

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There are fun applications of connectivity on planes as well. Wi-Fi is useful for much more than updating your Facebook or posting selfies to Snapchat. Passengers can stream on-demand movies to their personal electronic devices, wirelessly, from storage drives on the same plane. There’s no longer a need for those bulky boxes to be mounted under seats, consuming part of your leg room, but it will take several years for them all to be phased out. At this week’s Airline Passenger Experience Expo in Singapore, one company is pitching the idea of being able to use your smartphone to control the window shades at your seat.

But on a flight where dozens, if not hundreds of devices are connected to the network — including devices in the cockpit — is there any danger there? Last week, a number of high-profile websites including Netflix and Twitter were taken offline for several hours by a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack. In such an attack, compromised computers, known as a "botnet,” are used to flood a website's servers with page view requests, leaving legitimate traffic unable to get through.

I don’t consider myself a tech expert, especially when it comes to hacking into devices. However, I don’t see a severe airborne DDoS hack happening, for a couple of big reasons. First, the would-be hackers wouldn’t know ahead of time who will be on the flight, which means they would have to hack into each device during the flight. It’s unlikely that they would have enough time during the flight to accomplish this.

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And second, the Wi-Fi networks installed on commercial aircraft are very secure. They go through very stringent certification testing before they’re allowed to be installed. Finally, the flight crew has the ability to disable the whole entertainment system and shut down the Wi-Fi network if the need were to arise.

In 2015, a cybersecurity expert named Chris Roberts claimed he was able to hack into the entertainment systems of several flights between 2011 and 2014, and even control the engine functions on one flight, but that has never been proven. Since then, the airlines and their suppliers have said that the cockpit functions are in no way tied into the same system than is used by the traveling public — which should mean worry-free skies for us all.