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A study by a US university has concluded that mobile phones and other portable electronic devices are liable to interfere with the operation of critical aircraft components.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found the effects of mobile transmissions of devices such as Global Positioning System receivers were worse than previously thought, after monitoring transmissions on a number of short-haul US flights. They tracked radio emissions via a broadband antenna attached to a compact portable spectrum analyzer held in a carry-on bag (which we trust didn't itself generate emissions).

The researchers found that on average one to four cell phone calls were made during commercial flights in the north-east US. Some of these calls are made during critical flight stages such as the climb after take-off, or on final approach, potentially placing an aircraft in danger.

The study focused mainly on in-flight mobile use but it also unearthed evidence that the use of devices such as laptops and DVD players, especially during critical flight stages, were also a potential hazard.

"We found that the risk posed by these portable devices is higher than previously believed," said Bill Strauss, an expert in aircraft electromagnetic compatibility at the Naval Air Warfare Center in Patuxent River, Maryland, and a recent doctoral graduate from Carnegie Mellon.

"These devices can disrupt normal operation of key cockpit instruments, especially Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers, which are increasingly vital for safe landings."

The study comes as the US Federal Communications Commission is considering lifting the ban on the use of mobile phones during flights. Granger Morgan, head of the EPP Department at Carnegie Mellon, reckons this is a bad move.

"We feel that passenger use of portable electronic devices on aircraft should continue to be limited for the safety of all concerned," said Morgan.

Although use of mobile phones, much less electronic devices, have never been linked to an aircraft accident the Carnegie Mellon boffins reckon the risk is all too real. Researchers behind the study advise the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Aviation Authority begin to coordinate electronic emission standards. They also recommend routine monitoring of on-board radio emissions by flight data recorders. The study will be featured in an article due to appear in the March issue of IEEE Spectrum magazine. ®

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