High-tech systems aspire to render airliners "hijack-proof"


Ian MacLeod, CanWest News Service; Ottawa Citizen

Published: Saturday, December 02, 2006

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OTTAWA -- The Boeing aircraft company has a Canadian patent pending for an anti-terrorist system that will automatically fly and land airliners if the flight crew is incapacitated or killed.

The "uninterruptible" autopilot will be activated by pilots or co-pilots flipping a switch, by sensors that detect excessive force against locked cabin doors or remotely by officials on the ground.

Once initiated "no one on board is capable controlling the flight," say documents related to the patent application by U.S. Boeing, the world's largest manufacturer of commercial jetliners.

In Europe, too, work is progressing on another system to make planes "hijack-proof" to prevent a repeat of the Sept. 11, 2001 suicide hijackings of four U.S. jetliners. It includes installing ultra-sensitive microphones and cameras to monitor passengers in the cabin, digital fingerprints and iris scans for access to the cockpit, and an avoidance system to prevent planes crashing into buildings.

Both systems are intended to improve upon existing onboard security measures, such as fortified cabin doors and armed uncovered police escorts, neither of which are foolproof.

The Boeing system will have an independent and inaccessible power source and once engaged, will fly the plane to a landing site, avoiding any large populated areas along the way, presumably in the event of the aircraft blowing up.

Flightglobal.com, the website for Flight International magazine, says once activated, the system will refuse any further pilot inputs to reassume control of the plane. It will also prevent anyone on board from interrupting an emergency landing plan that can be predefined or radioed to the aircraft by airline or government controllers and carried out by the aircraft's guidance and control system.

Meanwhile, the European SAFEE project Security of Aircraft in the Future European Environment aims to create a series of technological innovations to prevent another Sept. 11, says project co-ordinator Daniel Gaultier.

The microphones, cameras and biometric scanners are designed to make hijacking an airliner in mid-flight virtually impossible. Not on the European list of safeguards, however, is one element of the Boeing system, of piloting planes from the ground by remote control.

Instead, the 31 companies participating in SAFEE, launched in 2004 by the European Commission, are looking at more viable alternatives. Airbus, BAE Systems, Thales, Sagem and NLR have each taken charge of one of five main initiatives.

In Hamburg, Germany, in August, Airbus carried out the first tests on its "threat detection system,"which warns the pilot of any suspicious behaviour by a passenger via a system of cameras and microphones. A full simulation is planned for January 2008.

Thales, meanwhile, is working on an anti-collision system to be tested in June 2007, Gaultier said.

Developing biometric fingerprinting to ensure that only crew members can enter the cockpit has been entrusted to Dutch firm NLR, which plans to test the system in August 2007 in Amsterdam.

A demonstration of the entire system is planned for February. After that, a new seven-year contract is expected to be signed to bring the project to completion.

Ottawa Citizen

© CanWest News Service 2006


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