Travis, Robins test wireless aircraft intercom system

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For five days, Air Force aircraft maintainers at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., and Robins Air Force Base, Ga., demonstrated the Telephonics TruLink Wireless System at their respective bases to great success.

The system demonstration was conducted as part of an initiative dubbed "Wireless Intercom for Aircraft Ground Operations," or WIAGO, by the Air Mobility Warfare Center's Air Mobility Battlelab here.

The purpose of the WIAGO system is to improve on the current corded aircraft intercom system by migrating it into a wireless system, said Master Sgt. Rudy Cartagena, the battlelab's project officer on the initiative. The current intercom system for short range communications in and around airlift and tanker aircraft uses 50- to 100-foot-long cords that physically connect maintainers and aircrew to the aircraft. These cords, by their very nature, restrict user movement.

"The problem is amplified when cords become tangled with other cords and equipment," Sergeant Cartagena said. "When maintenance must be conducted beyond the reach of the cords, maintainers are forced to use hand signals, which can be misinterpreted."

The WIAGO system is based on a hand-held radio-size, battery-powered adapter.

"There are two, almost identical, variations of the adapter with the only difference being the connectors they use," Sergeant Cartagena said. "This is because one connects to the aircraft intercom system, called the access point, and the other connects to the user's headset, called the portable transceiver. WIAGO can operate as a stand-alone system, independent from the aircraft intercom system, or in concert with it, allowing personnel wearing a portable transceiver to communicate with personnel connected to the aircraft intercom system via cords."

The access point does not require permanent installation and connects to any active aircraft intercom terminal, using an aircraft-specific cable, Sergeant Cartagena said. The portable transceiver clamps on to the uniform and has a banana jack receptacle for use with standard Air Force issue headsets.

"WIAGO operates in the 2.4 Gigahertz license free band," Sergeant Cartagena said. "The adapters have 50 channels and can support 31 users per channel, six in full duplex. Full duplex capability means no 'push to talk' is needed -- similar to carrying a conversation on a regular phone using a receptionist headset.

"The system has a low probability of intercept due to its short range and use of frequency hopping," Sergeant Cartagena added. "It also has a very effective noise suppression system; we were extremely impressed."

During the demonstration of the system, WIAGO adapters were used to transmit and receive during pre-determined scenarios and maintenance tasks to assess the adapter's functionality. C-5 Galaxy and KC-10 Extender aircraft were selected for use in the demonstration because of the challenge their large size would present to the WIAGO wireless system.

"The logic going in was if WIAGO works well with these large aircraft, it should also work with smaller ones," Sergeant Cartagena said. "Using maintenance Airmen at Travis and Robins to demonstrate the system made sense because it provided a larger user sample and enabled equipment assessment in two different maintenance environments -- at organizational and depot levels."

Some of the maintenance tasks performed during the demonstration time period included towing an aircraft, an engine run and a floor board installation at the depot.
During towing, WIAGO enabled cordless, spoken communication between all tow team members, Sergeant Cartagena said.

"Being able to communicate specific instructions directly into one's ear is a more efficient approach than using hand signals," he said. "This was also an improvement when connecting the tow truck."

During the engine run, WIAGO's noise suppression capability enabled clear spoken communication in a high noise environment of more than 120 decibels.

"This, in turn, eliminated time wasted repeating instructions due to background noise," Sergeant Cartagena said. "The system's compatibility with the aircraft communication system enabled an Airman in the cockpit to communicate with maintainers on the ground as well as with the air traffic control tower."

During the floor board installation at the depot, headsets are not normally used.

"The floor between the workers, and with rivet gun noise in the background, presents a tough communication barrier during the installation process," Sergeant Cartagena said. "Yelling instructions, which is the standard way of doing things, is inefficient. Use of the aircraft communications system would eliminate this problem, but it requires aircraft power, which isn't always permitted during depot work. Using the WIAGO system made this operation more efficient by virtually eliminating the need to repeat instructions when they aren't heard."

First Lt. Steven LeBlanc, a maintenance officer for the 60th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Travis, said the wireless intercom system was well received by the maintainers.

"The Airmen expressed great interest in the system and felt it would really help them in their day-to-day operations," Lieutenant LeBlanc said. "They appreciated the fact they were able to move in and around the aircraft unrestricted while keeping clear and sustained communication with their teammates."

Although the WIAGO system did not face every possible maintenance scenario during demonstration period, it faced enough scenarios to confidently arrive at one conclusion -- WIAGO will provide maintenance personnel increased mobility, improving efficiency and enhancing communications capabilities during ground operations, Sergeant Cartagena said.

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