John Harlow – The Sunday Times, London August 22, 2004
Terrorists could be prevented from carrying out September 11-style attacks by a device that would allow air traffic controllers to take control of aircraft and land them remotely.
The device, known as “Robolander”, is among a number of pilot aides that the American government’s Department of Homeland Security has asked Boeing to fit to new aircraft. Despite resistance to the technology from unions and airlines, the government may contribute up to £40m towards a prototype “proof of concept” aircraft to be built by 2010.
Robolander merges several modern computer systems, including a “refuse to crash” program that steers planes away from mountains and high buildings if pilots do not respond to audible warnings.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) recently flew a real Boeing 757 over a simulated version of Washington DC and tried to “crash” it into the White House, but the computer software blocked the pilot and forced him to turn away.
John Douglass, president of the Washington-based Aerospace Industries Association, said the logical next step was to allow air traffic controllers to take control of a plane in an emergency: “If the pilot hears the terrorist crashing through the door, he could send an encrypted signal to an air traffic centre and pass them control.”
President George W Bush publicly threw his weight behind the development of such systems after the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. At present the only way to defeat hijackers who have broken into the cockpit is to shoot down the plane.
Although the remote control technology has existed for some time — the military regularly fly pilotless “drone” aircraft on surveillance and bombing missions — America’s cash-strapped airlines have long fought against developing it, largely on cost grounds.
Douglass said the mood had gradually changed. “I am confident that Robolander can be built into the next generation of air traffic control systems to deal with drunken passengers or suicidal pilots as well as hijackers,” he said.
“That will bring prices down so dramatically that the private pilot fearing a heart attack can also share it.”
Other companies are working on different solutions to the hijacker menace. Cubic Corp of San Diego, California, has been granted a patent for a panic button that locks a hijacker out of the cockpit and then flies the plane home by autopilot.
Stanley Craig, an Arizona air safety consultant, has patented a device that demands a code before pilots can operate the controls: any unauthorised change alerts ground control to a possible hijack.
“There have been on average 50 hijackings a year since 1975,” Craig said. “Locking the cockpit door is not enough; I can knock down any door in 15 seconds.”
Other ideas range from advanced cabin cameras to hidden nozzles that could pump sleeping gas into the fuselage.
Current methods of controlling potential hijackers rely on manpower rather than microchips: up to 20,000 armed air marshals are routinely deployed on American aircraft.
Pilots are reluctant to cede control to computers. “What would happen if the terrorists took over the air control tower and hacked the codes?” said a senior executive at the international Airline Pilots Association last week. “They would have a dozen flying bombs.”
Those who have been the most emotionally affected by the September 11 attacks, however, have no qualms about the new technology.
“If airline bosses cannot find the money to make their planes more hijack-proof, then maybe they should be running a hot-dog stand instead,” said a spokesman for the Family Steering Committee, which represents many of the victims of those attacks.
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