Science

Medevac helicopters could be grounded after 5G wireless rollout on January 19


AT&T and Verizon are set to unleash their 5G networks across the US on January 19, but the launch could ground the more than 9,000 commercial helicopters, including lifesaving medevac choppers, as a result.

The wireless service can render radar altimeters, which measure altitude, unreliable and under US law, all commercial helicopters must have a working device in order to fly.

Without radar altimeters, landing in remote areas or on hospital landing pads will be near impossible, said Ben Clayton, interim chief executive officer of Life Flight Networks, as reported on by Bloomberg.

The issue is medevac helicopters need to land and take off in remote areas, making their ability to measure altitude vital for a successful mission.

Other commercial helicopters that conduct tours or law enforcement craft that need to be deployed in uneasy terrain also rely on the technology.

The Helicopter Association International (HAI) petitioned the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in October, asking for air ambulances to be exempt from the law when 5G rolls out.

And on January 13, the HAI finally received a response, but is granted only partial approval.

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AT&T and Verizon are set to unleash their 5G networks across the US on January 19, but the launch could mean many medevac helicopter will be grounded as a result

AT&T and Verizon are set to unleash their 5G networks across the US on January 19, but the launch could mean many medevac helicopter will be grounded as a result

‘Based on the unprecedented nature of the widespread impacts to radio altimeters … the FAA will grant relief to part 119 certificate holders conducting HAA [helicopter air ambulance] operations in areas in which the FAA has determined that 5G C-Band interference affects or might affect the radio altimeter,’ according to the FAA.

However, there are thousands of HAA in the US that cater to at least 300,000 people a year who need to be medevacked to a medical facility.

Helicopters used in medical transportation often land and take off from locations that are not at airports or helipads to evacuate victims of natural disasters or vehicle accidents.  

And a reliable radar altimeter is necessary to ensure the safety of the helicopter, rescuers and patients.

The wireless service can render radar altimeters, which measures altitude, unreliable and under US law, all commercial helicopters must have a working device in order to fly. Pictured is a Verizon going up in Utah

The wireless service can render radar altimeters, which measures altitude, unreliable and under US law, all commercial helicopters must have a working device in order to fly. Pictured is a Verizon going up in Utah 

Regardless, the FAA says this type of transportation cannot be grounded even if  the device is not functioning properly due to 5G interference.

‘Permitting the use of NVGs in HAA operations in off-airport or unimproved area locations when a radio altimeter might experience interference is in the public interest,’ the FAA shared in a statement. 

‘The public interest in allowing such operations to continue is considerable, especially given that approximately 40,000 to 50,000 of such operations occur from off-airport or unimproved areas at night.’

The US reported a total of 9,348 helicopters in 2019, which is four times higher than the next largest fleet in Canada.

There has been a lot of back and forth between AT&T and Verizon and the US government leading up to the official roll out.

The launch was initially set to happen on January 4, but due to concerns about how the service would impact airlines the companies agreed upon a two-week delay to give the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) enough time to fix the issues.

Aviation officials fear that 5G signals near airports could interfere with certain airplane instruments, including the radio altimeter used to gauge altitude

Aviation officials fear that 5G signals near airports could interfere with certain airplane instruments, including the radio altimeter used to gauge altitude

The problem is the 3.7 to 3.98 GHz frequency, known as C-Band, that the two wireless carriers spent tens of billions licensing for use to power their ultra-fast 5G networks.

Officials with the Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing have warned that there is potential for interference with vital aircraft instruments operating in the adjacent 4.2 to 4.4 GHz band, including radio altimeters that tell pilots their altitude in poor visibility.

In short, the fear is that in rare cases, false altitude readings could confuse pilots as they approach for landing in poor visibility conditions, with potentially disastrous results.

However, the two-week delay should give the FAA enough time to ensure there are no disruptions with airplanes – but the same cannot be said for helicopters.

EXPLAINED: THE EVOLUTION OF MOBILE BROADBAND UP TO 5G

The evolution of the G system started in 1980 with the invention of the mobile phone which allowed for analogue data to be transmitted via phone calls.   

Digital came into play in 1991 with 2G and SMS and MMS capabilities were launched. 

Since then, the capabilities and carrying capacity for the mobile network has increased massively. 

More data can be transferred from one point to another via the mobile network quicker than ever.

5G is expected to be 100 times faster than the currently used 4G. 

Whilst the jump from 3G to 4G was most beneficial for mobile browsing and working, the step to 5G will be so fast they become almost real-time. 

That means mobile operations will be just as fast as office-based internet connections.

Potential uses for 5g include: 

  • Simultaneous translation of several languages in a party conference call 
  • Self-driving cars can stream movies, music and navigation information from the cloud
  • A full length 8GB film can be downloaded in six seconds. 

5G is expected to be so quick and efficient it is possible it could start the end of wired connections.  

By the end of 2020, industry estimates claim 50 billion devices will be connected to 5G.

The evolution of from 1G to 5G. The predicted speed of 5G is more than 1Gbps - 1,000 times greater than the existing speed of 4G and could be implemented in laptops of the future 

The evolution of from 1G to 5G. The predicted speed of 5G is more than 1Gbps – 1,000 times greater than the existing speed of 4G and could be implemented in laptops of the future 



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