With airline safety grabbing the headlines, Qualcomm
made its own bid for attention yesterday, unveiling technology
that would allow those on the ground to keep a constant eye on
what's happening on an airplane.
The wireless technology is based on the satellite system
operated by Globalstar Telecommunications, which provides
satellite phone service to 55,000 customers worldwide.
The Globalstar Satellite Communications System uses 48
satellites and would allow for the real-time transmission of
voice, data and video from airplanes. Current radio systems
only provide for voice communications and can't give those on
the ground a picture of what's going on throughout an
Qualcomm had been working on the airline satellite system
for some time, with the effort originally focused on providing
passengers with the ability to surf the Internet. However, few
airlines were interested in laying out the cash for such a
system, skeptical of its money-making potential.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Qualcomm
realized the technology could also aid in airplane security,
said Irwin Jacobs, the company's chairman and CEO.
Jacobs declined to give the exact cost of the system, but
said it would be economical for cash-strapped airlines to
install and run. In addition, Jacobs said the system, at just
50 pounds, wouldn't add substantial weight to a plane, whether
it be commercial or private. The antenna is less than 10
inches long and weighs less than two pounds.
The airborne security system could work in tandem with
airplanes' flight data recorders and black boxes, providing a
backup of communications in case of an accident or hijacking.
There have been preliminary discussions with many of the
airlines, Jacobs said. Because the system is so new, he said,
no firm deals have been struck. In two weeks, Qualcomm plans
to demonstrate the technology in Washington, D.C., for
government agencies and the airlines to gauge interest in the
If consumers feel more secure, they might be more willing
fly again, Jacobs said. In addition, airlines could
potentially add revenue by offering the Internet on flights.
Yesterday's demonstration showed the airborne satellite
system's ability to send e-mail, instant messages, picture
attachments, at the same time that a video feed beamed the
movements of those in the cockpit and the cabin. Jacobs made
his comments from an airport hangar near Lindbergh Field,
while the airplane and its passengers flew to Yuma, Ariz.
But the demonstration hardly went without a hitch. The picture quality was reminiscent
of early Internet video, replete with jerky and robotic images
of the passengers and pilots. Some of the airplane's
microphones failed to work and the voice connection cut out as
"The best laid plans of mice and airplanes," Jacobs
remarked, about the glitches.
But yesterday's technical problems aren't the only ones
facing the system. Globalstar is on the financial ropes and in
the process of reorganizing. The company has estimated it has
enough cash to make it to the end of the year. Analysts say
that without an infusion of additional capital, the company
may have to declare bankruptcy. That fact might make potential
customers wary of signing on to Qualcomm's system.
Qualcomm, an early investor in Globalstar, has so far
declined to put in additional funding. But Jacobs said
yesterday that Qualcomm may be willing to provide financial
"It's possible," Jacobs said. "It depends on what the
reorganization looks like."
The company also faces competition. Iridium Satellite,
another satellite phone company, said shortly after the Sept.
11 hijackings that it had come up with a cockpit voice system
that could monitor and back up all communications. Iridium
said the system may be available in four months, depending on
government approvals, at a cost of $50,000 to $60,000 per jet.
Jacobs said the Globalstar system is superior because it
has transmission speeds 10 times faster than Iridium's, making
video and Internet use possible. Boeing Inc. and high-end
satellite company Inmarsat also have competing technologies.
Qualcomm also must get approval from the Federal Aviation
Administration for the system, which could take some time.
Still, Jacobs is hopeful that Globalstar would provide enough
of a benefit that the FAA would quickly give it the green
Mohan Trivedi, a UCSD professor in electrical engineering,
said his research lab is working on technology similar to
Qualcomm's for use in automobiles and trucks. There's a
critical need for these types of security systems, Trivedi
said, because 58 percent of all terrorist attacks are against
the transportation infrastructure.
But he said Qualcomm might face some roadblocks. Pilots'
unions in the past have resisted cockpit video surveillance,
he said. In addition, many airlines are fighting to stay in
business and might not have the cash to spend on these new
"I'm not sure whether all the airlines will be willing to
take this up immediately," Trivedi said.
News of the demonstration helped Globalstar's stock price,
which jumped 120 percent, gaining 47 cents yesterday to close
at 86 cents. Shares in Qualcomm dropped $2.97 to close at
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