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Dec. 5, 2003

Airplanes and the Internet

The prospect of airplanes relying on internet technology to stay up in the air might scare some people. After all in an age of viruses, e-mail spam and computer crashes the internet isn't likely at the top of society's reliability list.

But Calvin engineering professor Steve VanderLeest says, despite people's first impressions, internet technology will soon be the primary way of keeping planes aloft. And, he says, the technology will be more reliable than current methods and cheaper. He's quick to add, however, that despite the terminology, there will be some critical differences in the technology currently used to communicate on the internet and the technology slated to become a standard part of new planes.

"Right now," he says, "avionics are incredibly expensive and complicated. The airplane manufacturers - people like Boeing - are looking to cut costs and simplify. They're responding to the marching orders of commercial airlines, but also responding to what they're hearing from the military."

VanderLeest says the most promising way to cut costs and simplify is TCP/IP. TCP is Transport Control Protocol and IP is Internet Protocol. Both acronyms refer to the way information currently flows across the internet. And both methods have huge pluses for the complex systems of communication contained in modern-day aircraft.

For the last two years VanderLeest has been working as a consultant to Smiths Aerospace, looking at putting internet protocols into aircraft communications systems. What he's learned, he says, is encouraging.

"TCP and IP," he says, "has been around since the early 1980s and became the internet in the late 80s. They've been around long enough to have inspired other uses. And one of those other uses is to allow the multitude of communication systems in an aircraft to talk to each other. What we're seeing now is that the internet protocols make for reliable communication at much lower cost than customized approaches. They will have a big impact on airplanes."

VanderLeest says it's important to remember too that the communication network for the flight management and navigation equipment is isolated, so that while the protocol is the same as the Internet, dangers such as viruses and spam cannot occur on the network of the airplane. "That's why," he says, "people don't need to worry when they hear the words internet and airplane mentioned in the same sentence."

A Calvin graduate who earned his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois, VanderLeest began working with Smiths as part of a sabbatical project and has continued to work with the companies during summers. As an electrical and computer engineer he says his current work is paying dividends for both him and his students.

"I see problems (at Smiths) that I wouldn't necessarily anticipate if I were only looking at issues theoretically," he says. "I also see in the workplace the dependencies and interactions between different issues and problems and how things impact and rely on each other. That's actually kind of a nice reminder of what we're trying to do at Calvin with a liberal arts education - where we're teaching students about dependencies and interactions in different disciplines."

And, says VanderLeest, there is one final benefit.

"Students," he says, "pay a little closer attention when I use examples from my work. A major company is employing me for my expertise. That gives me some credibility."

He adds, with a smile: "Maybe even more than a Ph.D. does."

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Contact Phil de Haan
616-526-6475 (v)
616-526-7069 (f)