Science

Is 5G a danger for airports?

Another hit for 5G. The United States has just put in place, several months after France, a series of brakes that limit the installation of antennas near airports. Is the new mobile telephony standard so incompatible with the extremely high level of security in the airline industry? Would 5G cause malfunctions or even crashes in flight as some articles seem to suggest?

The reality is much more nuanced. For aviation experts, the problem does not come from 5G itself, but from the radio altimeters installed on aircraft. Too old, poorly designed from the start, some models would simply be too sensitive to neighboring frequencies. Therefore, it would be enough to change them to eliminate the risks. A simple task on paper, but hampered by financial issues.

“Radio altimeters are used in particular for approaching the ground. Like radars, they send waves to the ground and receive a return signal that allows the altitude to be deduced”, explains Gilles Bregant, Director General of the Agency. According to a report by the RTCA – the equivalent of the European Organization for Civil Aviation Equipment – published in 2020, the frequencies distributed to operators for 5G would be too close to the radio altimeters used, so they could be temporarily “dazzled” by surrounding communications. Is this a serious risk? it’s hard to say. Experiments carried out in the laboratory have shown that there could be a disruption of the devices. Similarly, 5G mobilizes so-called “active” antennas. These can, in theory, identify a passenger who wants to connect to a plane and stay focused. on the device throughout the descent phase. despite several months of hindsight, no incidents occurred under real conditions.

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Precautionary measures

However, France has taken some preventive measures. “To protect against possible risks of disruption of aircraft radio altimeters by 5G emissions, protection zones have been established around the 17 main French airports that apply precision landing procedures in all weather conditions to limit the power of transmission of 5G antennas in the vicinity”. of these airports. These areas are respected by the four French telecommunications operators”, explains the DGAC contacted by L’Express. “At the same time, we did tests on helicopters to make sure they could land without problems”, says Gilles Bregant, director general of the Agency National Frequencies (ANFR).

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However, “at this stage no event of interruption by 5G technology of the correct operation of the radio altimeters has been reported,” specifies the DGAC. And the same happens in other countries, including those -the most numerous- that have not put in place any protection measures. Would the risk of an incident therefore be overestimated? “Today, the debate in the United States gives the impression that radio altimeters are all fragile. This is not at all what we see in the field. We are waiting for the manufacturers to share their information to know which are the models in question. But I believe that in the end there will not be many”, says Gilles Bregant. However, this does not mean that the problem will be resolved quickly. “Developing a new altimeter design approved by the authorities could take eight to ten years,” warns the American newspaper USA Today. And the battle over who will bear the cost of modifying the planes has only just begun. “When the RTCA published its report, just before the US regulator opened C-band to 5G, everyone was in awe of the dollars. Since then, the case has obviously not been solved – we have the impression that the manufacturers are taking over the airlines. hostage and who in turn are trying to pass the costs on to the passengers”, observes a specialist in the sector. To get out of the rut, it will take an army of lawyers.

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