back to article Heathrow's air traffic radio set for shiny digital upgrade from Northrop

Heathrow Airport is to get new air traffic control radio systems with a surprising amount of internet connectivity baked into them. Northrop Grumman is supplying Britain's busiest airport with its Park Air T6 air traffic management product. This will replace Heathrow's existing radio equipment, used by air traffic controllers …

  1. Ralph the Wonder Llama
    Coat

    "It is also capable of generating ACARS messages, which is a sort of text-messages-for-airliners system that displays messages in an airliner's cockpit for pilots to read."

    U R 2 LO GO UP LOL

    Maybe not...

    1. Uberseehandel

      Even in the US, there is no guarantee that what is said over the radio will be intelligible. The first time I flew into a busy metropolitan airport (as an amateur), I had to have somebody translate what I was being told, there was a lot of pressure and despite having previously lived in that state (so was familiar with the local accent).

      Getting a text message would be a relief for many of us.

      1. Bob Wheeler
        Thumb Up

        intelligible ATC

        It takes a long time to get your ear - and brain, around Air Traffic Control radio conversations. It's very formulaic in it's construction to convey a precise meaning in the minimum number of words. the professionals at places like Heathrow, rattle the stuff out with such speed, for the GA pilots it's hard to keep up, let alone respond in a meaningful way.

        1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

          Re: intelligible ATC

          My dad used to work in ATC. He could understand human speech in the most unintelligible form. Unfortunately, working for decades with a headset destroyed his hearing and he's almost stone deaf. But in a quiet room, he can still understand garbled human speech.

        2. Andy Livingstone

          Re: intelligible ATC

          Just like apostrophes?

        3. BanburyBill

          Re: intelligible ATC

          ICAO Phraseology (which is the formulaic construction) does help, but still leaves space for misunderstanding especially when accents are involved. But it isn't used in the US. An ATC controller trainer once advised me that one should prefer flying to left pond with native English-speaking flight crew for that reason.

          ATC digital messages are CPDLC, not ACARS.

    2. collinsl

      Well it would be something like "would you be willing to climb to 42000 feet in 10 minutes?"

      It allows controllers to see what pilots can do so they can plan out their workload in advance whilst keeping the radio frequencies clear. ACARS can also be used for the aeroplane to talk to their own airline controllers etc without them having to use a radio frequency.

      Plus in the future, as coverage expands, it may be possible to perform all control via ACARS so the voice frequencies can be freed up. This will also allow improved automation.

    3. Paul Johnson 1

      Its actually for the airline to communicate with its aircraft. ATC don't use it.

    4. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      Coat

      "U R 2 LO GO UP LOL"

      Now I seem to recall there's a cockpit duress code which basically translates as "we are being hijacked." I think it's either 3(o4) 6's or 9's.

      I wonder how difficult it would be to spoof the system into thinking an aircraft had sent such a message?*

      Should be very difficult indeed. But IRL??

      1. SkippyBing

        Re: "U R 2 LO GO UP LOL"

        'Now I seem to recall there's a cockpit duress code which basically translates as "we are being hijacked." I think it's either 3(o4) 6's or 9's.'

        The code is 7500 on the transponder, which is a separate radio to ACARS or voice comms. It displays on the radar screen so to spoof it you'd have to guarantee it arrives at the radar head at the same time the return from the aircraft does.

        Having done that I'm not sure what havoc you'd actually cause, ATC would then contact the aircraft to see what was up, if they didn't reply the QRA would intercept them and guide them to Luton or Stanstead*. An inconvenience but not world ending?

        *One of them is the designated diversion for hijackings etc, can't remember which one.

        1. John Crisp

          Re: "U R 2 LO GO UP LOL"

          *One of them is the designated diversion for hijackings etc, can't remember which one.

          I believe Stansted has a hijack stand (from a relative who worked there in security)

          1. Cuddles Silver badge

            Re: "U R 2 LO GO UP LOL"

            "I believe Stansted has a hijack stand (from a relative who worked there in security)"

            Which makes sense really. Who's going to hijack a plane if it risks ending up at Stansted?

  2. This post has been deleted by its author

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    as secure as a very secure thing locked inside a secure safe but the key is taped to the front and the combination is on a post it note.

    Nothing is completely secure, this should at the very least be air gapped.

    1. Ralph the Wonder Llama

      air gapped

      I see what you did there ;)

      1. Roger Greenwood

        Re: air gapped

        on the contrary - surely it should be cloud based?

    2. tiggity Silver badge

      .. and "remote firmware update" does not sound like a great security feature

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    'they should be as secure as a very secure thing'

    Col Stuart: Activate the ILS landing system.

    ...Recalibrate sea level - *minus* 200 feet...

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QkCQ_-Id8zI&t=0h3m54s

    1. SkippyBing

      Re: 'they should be as secure as a very secure thing'

      That film is completely ruined once you do something as reckless as getting a pilot's licence!

  5. Magani
    WTF?

    Secure?

    Unless I've missed something here, until they change every VHF radio in every aircraft using Heathrow and surrounds, they still have to broadcast on a nominally open frequency between 108 and 137MHz. The use of these frequencies is subject to ICAO regulation and (AFAIK) is never encrypted.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Secure?

      But the web interface to do things like shut the system down should be secure.

      It wont be, it will have the usual set of web vulnerabilities and will have a default service account with the passwd "service"

    2. Paul Johnson 1

      Re: Secure?

      ATC still broadcasts in the clear on voice. This isn't because they haven't considered various forms of encryption, but any form of digital encryption or authentication means having absolutely reliable key distribution and revocation mechanisms across the entire world, including bits that aren't very sophisticated. The risks of doing this and getting it wrong are higher than the risks due to the current system.

  6. jake Silver badge

    They should be as secure as ...

    ... a very secure thing locked inside a secure safe running TCP/IP. That is to say, not very secure at all.

    Who in their right mind thinks ATC shit should be Internet connected? And WHY? WTF are they smoking, because I don't want any.

    1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

      Re: They should be as secure as ...

      Just because it's running TCP/IP doesn't mean it's connected to the Internet....

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: They should be as secure as ...

        The article said "a surprising amount of internet connectivity baked into them", so I'm guessing it's going to be connected. Just a hunch, mind.

        1. Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese

          Re: They should be as secure as ...

          The article said "a surprising amount of internet connectivity baked into them", so I'm guessing it's going to be connected. Just a hunch, mind.

          It may be significant that the article refers to "internet" with a lower-case 'i'. I read that as meaning the kit will work on LAN/WAN, but it doesn't necessarily imply connectivity to the public Internet

          1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge
            Unhappy

            @Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese Re: They should be as secure as ...

            I think it's only pedants like you & I that understand the difference between internet & Internet.

            1. paulll

              Re: @Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese They should be as secure as ...

              *you & me

    2. phuzz Silver badge

      Re: They should be as secure as ...

      To be fair, it's only the author who claims it'll be secure. The only claim NG make is that their SNMPv3 implementation has "enhanced encryption and authentication", which either means they've turned on authPriv, or maybe upgraded to AES and SHA (wooooo!) (from the default DES and MD5).

    3. SkippyBing

      Re: They should be as secure as ...

      'Who in their right mind thinks ATC shit should be Internet connected?

      You used to be able to* download a Java applet** that let you file flight plans from your own computer. They went straight into the ATC system, although they are checked before your clearance is issued so there is a sanity check.

      *You probably still can I just haven't needed to since I wanted to fly into the London Olympics air space.

      **No really.

  7. gon

    handheld in a drawer

    i just hope someone has a handheld transceiver secreted in a drawer in the control tower for when it all goes blue screen, ime assuming as its military grade its running windows xp or maybe 7??

    signed ..... cynical git..

    1. collinsl

      Re: handheld in a drawer

      There are 2 completely separate radio systems in an active-passive configuration. If one dies, you switch to the other.

      Just as there are 2 different LANs for the critical infrastructure, and 2 different control rooms (one offsite).

      Everything in ATC is tested and tested and tested and retested and then tested some more, and then tested again for good measure, and is duplicated and then tested.

    2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: handheld in a drawer

      i just hope someone has a handheld transceiver secreted in a drawer in the control tower for when it all goes blue screen,

      Aren't all the pilots on snapchat ?

  8. emdeedee

    I hope they don't skimp on the security analysis

    Otherwise this is exactly the situation the phrase "an accident waiting to happen" was designed for.

  9. Fuzz

    Tablets

    "management of all the Sapphire assets from remote desktops or tablets"

    Pass the ipad, I just need to order a book on Amazon, check the footy scores and update the configuration of the London air traffic control radios.

    Makes sense to me.

  10. Alan1kiwi

    Good luck with that lot

    Why can't they stick some stop-go people in the cloud, same as on the roads.

    Surely (and don't call me Shirley) it isn't that hard.

    Oh well..........

  11. Korev Silver badge
    Coat

    Terminally bad joke

    Park Air T6

    But Heathrow only has five terminals

  12. imanidiot Silver badge
    Facepalm

    Why the internet connection

    What is on this equipment that NEEDS an internet connection?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Why the internet connection

      It's not. It's on a LAN - no connection to the outside world. I appreciate it doesn't say that anywhere in the article, but that is the case.

  13. Valarian

    FTFY

    "The Park Air Sapphire system at Heathrow also includes MARC Server, a configurable browser-based control and monitoring system allowing unauthorised management of all the Sapphire assets from remote desktops or tablets in North Korea, China, Russia, and a beige Fiat 500 parked across the road," Northrop Grumman said in a statement.

    1. A. Coatsworth
      Black Helicopters

      Re: FTFY

      Don't forget the Flowers By Irene delivery van that will be permanently parked near the place. It comes from an USAsian company, after all.

  14. David Nash
    Mushroom

    Northrop Grumman

    Hope it performs better than their Zuma satellite!

  15. jonfr

    The internet

    Not everything needs to be or should be connected to the internet. Flight control systems and electric grid systems are among the systems that don't need or should have internet connection.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Rolling Blackouts

    This, yet another procurement of non-indigenous systems, is not in the UK's National interest.

    As we all know since the Centrica-Froggy spectacle, our terrestrial systems (National Grid) have long been compromised, the precedent has been set for further intrusions into the UK's Sovereignty.

    If the Hong-Kong radar system is anything to go fly-by, they (claim to have) had recently changed user priviledges when the system blacked out in 2017. It, naturally as could be, was an american radar system/ground control system. Turning back to the UK,

    Surely the UK is competent enough to field indigenous systems rather than rely on foreigners,no?

    Aw McCain, you've done it again!

  17. Alistair
    Windows

    Heard in the Ops room technical support dept.

    I picked the wrong week to quit smoking.

  18. wmpattison

    Is this the same Northrop that's doing such an excellent job on the "new" software for the F35 Lightning II?

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