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'Hijack-proof' airliner will fly itself out of danger

London Times | September 10 2006

TRIALS have begun on the first “hijack-proof” airliner, which will be able to steer itself away from tall buildings and even land by remote control if terrorists kill the pilot.

Microphones will eavesdrop on passengers' conversations while computerised CCTV detects suspicious movements so that hijackers can be caught before they go into action.

The plans, being developed by a consortium including BAE Systems, Airbus and the European commission, are designed to counter terrorists who succeed in slipping through airport security.

The systems, which have been in development since Al-Qaeda's attacks on America on September 11, 2001, go far beyond the reinforced cockpit doors and sky marshals introduced as an immediate reaction to the terror strikes.

The first tests were carried out last month using actors in planes on the ground in Bristol and Hamburg.

“We cannot say you will reach a zero level of risk, there is no such thing, but we think it is important that the public is reassured we are doing everything possible to get them maximum protection,” said Daniel Gaultier, the Paris-based co-ordinator of the project, named Security of Aircraft in the Future European Environment.

The first elements of the technology will be available to airlines by mid-2008 and the full system should be installed a few years after that. Similar work is being done separately in America.

The system is designed as a “last-ditch” defence if airport checks and passenger surveillance fail to prevent a hijack.

New cockpit doors, in addition to being strengthened, are likely to be controlled using biometric technology — which scans irises and fingerprints — so only authorised crew can gain access.

There will also be biometric sensors fitted to cockpit instruments so that if — as in the 9/11 attacks — a terrorist kills the pilot, the plane's controls can be overridden.

A computer would then prevent the plane being taken off its pre-determined course and allow ground controllers, by remote control, to land the aircraft safely at a nearby airport.

As a last resort — for example if the terrorist holds a gun to the pilot's head and tries to force him to fly into a building — an emergency avoidance system is being designed that would mean the plane automatically changed course if it headed for buildings or mountains.

Instruments would be able to judge whether the plane was being steered towards a target and would override the pilot and direct it away towards clear sky.

This avoidance system, based on one already in use to avert mid-air collisions, is likely to be the first element of the programme to be installed in 2008.

The most controversial part of the technology is likely to be the on-board threat detection system tested last month. This involves monitoring every passenger with hidden cameras and microphones. It may alarm businessmen wanting to talk in confidence or passengers concerned at infringement of privacy.

The data are recorded for immediate on-board analysis — picking up suspicious activities such as taking an unusually large number of items to the lavatory or walking repeatedly around the cabin.
The developers have not yet decided whether to put monitoring equipments inside lavatories, a question that is likely to prove highly contentious.

“We are trying to keep one step ahead of the terrorists,” said Catherine O'Neary of BAE Systems, team leader of the on-board threat detection system project.

She said there would be strict controls in place to prevent the crew or ground staff abusing the system. “We are not going to be looking at detailed conversations, but just their stress levels,” said O'Neary.

She added that the Data Protection Act required that recordings would be destroyed at the end of every flight.

The organisers of the £22m, four-year project believe the travelling public will be willing to trade this intense level of scrutiny for the increased reassurance the measures will provide.

Also being developed are explosive-sniffing detectors at the doors of each airliner and computer chips that match luggage to passengers on board. Gaultier said that, while the system would be expensive, some of it could be covered, for example, ending the use of sky marshals.

He said budget airlines may be forced to raise their prices, but added the state should subsidise the introduction of the new measures. “The cost should be shared between the state and the passenger,” said Gaultier.

The system will only come into its own if airport security fails to detect terrorists and their weapons.

New measures introduced at airports since 9/11 range from scrutiny of passenger lists for suspicious names to banning of scissors in cabin luggage.

However, the vulnerability of the system was shown by the delays and cancellations in the wake of last month's foiling of the alleged plot to bomb transatlantic airliners.

Thousands of travellers were affected by longer check-in times and restrictions on cabin baggage and British Airways alone lost £40m in revenue.



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