5G Network Rollout Could Ground Thousands of Medevac Helicopters Nationwide

by Josh Lanier
(Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Wireless companies say 5G networks give customers faster download speeds and better connectivity. But this game-changing technology could cause serious problems for helicopters, including medevacs, experts warned.

The more powerful broadband networks interfere with radio altimeters, which measure altitude, The Daily Mail reports, and makes them unreliable. U.S. law requires all commercial helicopters to have a working, reliable altimeter. Without them, landings become much more dangerous, said Ben Clayton, interim chief executive officer of the Life Flight Networks.

AT&T and Verizon will roll out new 5G networks on Jan. 19. The companies said the technology and helicopters co-exist in other countries without issue. Though, aviation experts’ tests show there could be interference issues. The FAA isn’t taking any risks. The agency that oversees air travel said helicopter manufacturers must show their crafts can withstand 5G interference or face restrictions.

Though, the FAA exempted 119 air ambulances from the altimeter requirement on Friday after months of pleas from medevac operators. The agency said that the public need is too high to ground those helicopters. However, the risk remains. Especially considering that many medevacs take off and land in areas other than heliports where precise altitudes are critical.

The Helicopter Association International said helicopters air-lift more than 300,000 people a year to get emergency medical treatment. Pilots pick up 40,000 to 50,000 of those patients from parking lots and open fields, often during natural disasters.

The group applauded the FAA’s decision.

“This exemption will allow (helicopter air ambulance) operators to continue to do what they do best — save lives,” the association’s president James Viola said in a statement. “There is no question that it is in the public interest for these lifesaving operations to continue.”

Airlines Worried About Rollout of 5G Networks

Airlines worry that interference from 5G networks could affect systems that pilots use when landing, NPR reported last week.

“I think if you were to ask us what our No. 1 concern is here in the near term, it is the deployment of 5G [Network],” Gary Kelly, Southwest CEO, told a Senate committee last month. “Because the FAA has issued an airworthiness directive. That would significantly impact our operation once it is deployed.”

Airlines say interference from 5G towers could prohibit “instrument landing,” which pilots use to land in poor weather conditions. This could force airlines to divert, reroute, or cancel flights.

But some experts say the concern is overblown. They say carriers could reduce the power of 5G towers near airports and avoid frequencies near the ones that aircraft use. This is a temporary solution that would buy airlines time to update their aircrafts’ radio altimeters.

Airlines could sue to stop the rollout of 5G networks if they can’t agree with providers on how best to handle this situation by Jan. 19.