A hijack-free plane?

European researcher: 'If you equip planes with on-board electronics, it will make them very, very difficult to hijack.'

Does technology have the answer to foil airplane terrorists? Could a plane be invented that couldn't be hijacked? European researchers say such a thing could be possible as soon as 2008, Reuters reports.

"You never reach zero level of threat, no risk," said program coordinator Daniel Gaultier of French technology group SAGEM Defense Securite, a unit of Safran (SAF.PA). "But if you equip planes with on-board electronics, it will make them very, very difficult to hijack."

The project, called SAFEE (Security of Aircraft in the Future European Environment), is a four-year project launched in 2004. The project includes such technology upgrades for planes as:

  • A chip-based system to allocate matching tags to passengers and their luggage, ensuring both are on board and removing the need for stewards to count passengers manually.
  • Cameras at check-in desks and at the entrance to the plane, in order to verify with biometric imaging that the person getting on board is the same as the one who checked in.
  • An "electronic nose" to check passengers for traces of explosives at the final ground check before boarding.
  • An Onboard Threat Detection System (OTDS) to process information from video and audio sensors throughout the cabin and detect any erratic passenger behavior.
  • A Threat Assessment and Response Management System (TARMS) to assemble all information and propose an appropriate response to the pilot via a computer screen located at his side.
  • A Data Protection System to secure all communications, including conversations between the cockpit and ground control.
  • A secure cockpit door with a biometric system that recognizes authorized crew by their fingerprints, together with a camera to check they are not opening it under duress.
  • An automatic collision avoidance system to correct the plane's course if it strays from a permitted trajectory.

Such a craft would come close to a Star Trek-like computer system in which censors monitor and constantly feed back information to a central computer, which can make automatic adjustments. Some people might not like being so closely watched. But it sure beats going down in a firey blaze.

With help from sources including security agencies and behavioral psychologists, researchers are building a database of potentially suspicious traits for computers to detect.

"It could be someone who's using their mobile phone when they shouldn't be, or trying to light up a cigarette. But it could also be something much more extreme, it could be a potential terrorist," said James Ferryman, a scientist at Britain's Reading University who is working on SAFEE. "We have to show it's not Big Brother watching you, it's Big Brother looking after you," Ferryman said.

"Suicide terrorism is not an issue for the airlines, it shouldn't be their responsibility," said Philip Baum, editor of Aviation Security International magazine.

"It is an attack, actually, against the state and it's part of a national defense, and therefore we need to fund this accordingly."

But of course its the Europeans, not the US that has funded the advanced research.

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