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Qualcomm technology offers airborne security

By Jennifer Davies
STAFF WRITER

October 30, 2001


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 aircraft.

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 system.

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 well.

"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 backing.

"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 light.

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 systems.

"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 $52.30.

Jennifer Davies' e-mail address is jennifer.davies@uniontrib.com. Her phone number is (619) 293-1373.

Copyright 2001 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.


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