How Airlines Can Avoid Mobile Technology Meltdowns on the Tarmac

As has been widely reported in the first days of the summer of 2018, the Southwest U.S. is being scorched, more so than usual. Flights have been delayed and canceled out of Phoenix and other airports due to the heat. Depending on the model of aircraft, temperatures of 117 F to 127 F 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 a car hood. They go on to demonstrate how, inside a car or truck, it can be 140 F and hotter; the starting temperature setting on an oven. That’s why I admire field workers who must power through this discomfort somehow, someway. (Now, my Motorola colleagues would re-assure me that although it is hot in Phoenix, it is a dry heat. Well, my oven is dry heat too, but I don’t sit in that!)

Extreme temperatures can cause extreme problems

Whether it is in Las Vegas in June, or Ontario 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 tool boxes with wrenches and screwdrivers, more and more field service professionals are carrying mobile devices, usually tablets, 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 tool box. 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 and handheld PCs, on the other hand will fail to operate at full capacity if exposed to extreme weather too long. Their 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. Because CPUs can melt. Literally. At 72 F ambient, they 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 brand and during any workflow application if heat isn’t quickly removed from the CPU. A processor running at its normal speed, if operated without any heat-moving technology, will literally melt itself. In fact, there have been instances of this is happening on the tarmacs of some U.S. airports this summer amongst devices that weren’t built to be used in such extreme environments. 

rugged tablets have heat-moving technologies to handle extreme temperatures

Obviously, rugged tablets 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 F, 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 focused 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 are designed to reduce the heat inside of a building up to 30 F 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 that field worker, who returns to his truck to get his tablet, and the inside of the cab is nearing 140 F? Would the tablet operate slowly, or not at all? He doesn’t have the luxury of waiting for cooler temperatures to take hold so that his tablet can work as it should; he needs a truly rugged mobile computer that is designed for the conditions he has to work in right this moment. (Another reason why rugged cases never suffice, and in fact make the situation worse by insulating the tablet and obscuring areas through which some heat could have escaped.) He needs a tablet 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 F.

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 tablets 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.

Want to learn more about how to tell if a rugged tablet is well suited for your typical work day? Start here.

Read Part 1 of this Blog

Blog Author: Bob Ashenbrenner
President of Durable Mobility Technologies, LLC.