How Airlines Can Avoid Mobile Technology Meltdowns on the Tarmac

The first step is to understand a tablet, scanner or smartphone’s temperature tolerance.

by Bob Ashenbrenner
August 08, 2019

I realize it is summer and “high” temperatures are to be expected. But 90+ degree Fahrenheit days in Alaska and triple digits across Western Europe are not.

Several times over the last few weeks, airlines have forced to delay or cancel flights at two of the  biggest airports in the U.K.– similar to what happened in Phoenix and other airports in the Southwestern U.S. back in 2017. That’s because, as I mentioned last week, when it’s too hot, planes can’t fly. Depending on the model of aircraft, temperatures of 117 to 127 degrees Fahrenheit are the limits above which a takeoff attempt is too risky. And heavily loaded planes, typically international flights with a heavy load of fuel, need even lower temperatures. But aircraft aren’t the only ones weighed down by the weather.

News outlets are reporting on the challenges people face in this extreme heat, bringing levity to the situation by frying eggs on the sidewalk. They go on to demonstrate (by baking biscuits, in some cases) how it can be 140 degrees Fahrenheit and hotter inside a car or truck – the starting temperature setting on an oven. That’s why I admire field workers who must power through this discomfort somehow, someway. (Now, my former colleagues would re-assure me that when it is hot in Phoenix, it is a dry heat. Well, my oven is dry heat too, but I don’t sit in that!)

Whether it is in Las Vegas in June, or Calgary in January, those charged with providing utility repair and installation, HVAC tune-ups, satellite dish installs and numerous other essential services must find a way to battle extreme temperatures, which means turning to technology to unlock new efficiencies and improve productivity. In addition to their toolboxes with wrenches and screwdrivers, more and more field service professionals are carrying mobile devices such as handheld computers, tablets and scanners that enable them to become information workers and, therefore, faster at their jobs. This includes airline ground crews who spend the long sunny summer days ensuring flight safety standards aren’t compromised amidst triple digit temperatures.

Here’s the thing: when it comes to heat, mobile devices are more like airplanes than those screwdrivers in the toolbox. Both mobile devices and airplanes have a dramatic failure mode if operated above their temperature limit. While screwdrivers just get hot to the touch, they still work. Mobile tablets, handheld computers and scanners, on the other hand, will fail to operate at full capacity (or at all) if exposed to too much heat. But the secret is in the details: rugged tablets and handhelds are designed to survive up to a much higher temperature limit than commercial and consumer-grade devices. Non-rugged devices’ processors slow down and, in many cases, will automatically shut down as part of a fail-safe setting: a forced power-off via a thermal diode that’s there for protection, at a much lower ambient temperature. This is because CPUs can melt, literally. Tablets and handhelds must manage the heat generated carefully, even at temperatures well under 100 Fahrenheit. Even at a low temperature like 72 Fahrenheit ambient, some would last only a few seconds if not cooled properly.

Don’t believe me? Then check this out: Tom’s Hardware has been a source for technology specifications since the late 1990s, covering PC design and performance, inside and out. There is a video from many years ago that shows a CPU melting after its heat sink (i.e. moves heat to air) has been removed. (Be sure to watch through to the 1:45 mark.) And, while this video is showing a gaming PC, this meltdown could happen with any device which doesn’t remove heat quickly from the CPU. That is because a processor running the kind of workload many field service people need, if operated without any heat-moving technology, will literally melt itself. In fact, airport personnel have shared instances of this happening on the tarmacs of some airports over the past several years amongst devices that weren’t built to be used in such extreme environments.

Obviously, rugged tablets and handheld mobile computers are designed with heat-moving technology, built to keep the internal CPU temperature within its limits. For example, a heat pipe or heat sink is commonly used in rugged tablets to allow the heat to dissipate into the air. For hotter processors, or CPUs that will be used in a hot environment such as a tarmac, more effective (and expensive) heat pipes are needed. But they are worth it because they direct the heat to an internal fan that quickly offloads the heat into the air. Now, a well-designed system, at 72 Fahrenheit, will probably not run the fan, as the heat pipe can move enough heat into the air to allow the processor to operate. But it will be programmed to turn on the fan if ambient temperatures rise. That’s because engineers focus on delivering a quality and performance-driven product design to the specifications of how a machine will be used, and the environment in which it must operate.

For example, in the Northeast U.S., air conditioners (AC) are designed to reduce the heat inside of a building up to 30 Fahrenheit below the outdoor temperature. That works in Massachusetts, but would be inadequate in Arizona, where ACs are designed for a much wider delta between outside and inside temps. Similarly, some tablets (think consumer and business-grade brands) are designed to operate in a smaller temperature range. If the processor’s temperature starts to rise, the tablet will first reduce the speed of the processor, and then turn off the processor if it is getting too hot. You may have experienced this yourself, in which case you can attest to the inconvenience.

But, what about the field workers, who return to their trucks to get their tablets, and the inside of their cabs may be nearing 140 Fahrenheit? Would the tablet operate slowly, or not at all? They don’t have the luxury of waiting for cooler temperatures to take hold so that their tablets can work as they should; they need truly rugged mobile computers that are designed for the conditions in which they need to work right this moment. (Another reason why rugged cases never suffice, and in fact, often make the situation worse by insulating the tablet and covering areas through which some heat could have escaped.)  They need tablets designed for a wide operating range, which can effectively move heat in a way that supports a processor’s full-speed performance at temperatures up to 140 Fahrenheit. (Even while they try to cool the cab so they can tolerate it.)

The takeaway? There is a real difference in how mobile devices are designed, based partly on the operating need and partly on the skill of the designers. Not all handhelds or tablets are the same, there are real differences. My recommendation is to make sure that you buy mobile devices that meet the operating spec that your technicians work in – whether that’s in a cargo hold, on a tarmac or the top of a utility pole. And dig deep to make sure that the device you select operates well at the extremes. The last thing you need is a technology meltdown. That’s a surefire way to create severe disruptions, no matter the situation.

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Editor’s Note: Mobile computers, tablets and scanners aren’t the only technology tools that airlines should be using to keep people, bags and planes moving swiftly and safely to their destinations. And a device’s “ruggedness” does not automatically qualify it for safe use on the tarmac. Stay tuned into Your Edge for upcoming discussions about the unique technology considerations (such as Hazardous Locations) and use cases in the transportation sector (including baggage tracking).

In the meantime, we want to know how the heat has affected you this summer personally and professionally. Share your stories in the Comments section below.

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Bob Ashenbrenner
Bob Ashenbrenner has more than 25 years of computer engineering and engineering management experience, with 18 of those specific to mobility and the field requirements that enable real work to happen








































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