Flying is still one of the safest forms of transport. Even accounting for the recent terrorist attacks, if you believe the statistics, it's 22 times safer than driving a car, according to the U.S. National Safety Council. But because of the World Trade Center atrocity, most people will never feel quite so secure in the air again.
While it's very difficult to prevent people who are prepared to die for their cause from wreaking havoc we can take certain steps to make sure that the exact circumstances of September 11 are never again repeated. Some solutions are low-tech, such as fitting anti-hijack doors on cockpits, but most are high-tech involving currently available wireless technology that can be easily if not so cheaply deployed.
"We have to try and restore confidence in air travel," says Jerry Snyder, spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration. "And to that we are going to have to invest heavily in security in airline business."
The task at hand
According to Mr. Snyder, currently, a Rapid Response Task Force is compiling a report for the Bush Administration on what needs to be done. But so far, the details of the report have not been made public so we at the Feature.com have taken a look at the kinds of technologies that could transform air transport security.
The first task is to ensure that nobody but the pilot or co-pilot can operate the aircraft, according to Professor Pradeep Khosla, head of the department of electrical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.
"We now have some very effective, low cost biometric technologies that can be used to identify the air crew," he says. "Finger print, voice print, iris print, and facial recognition technologies that could be used to establish that only an authorized person can operate the controls."
While, it is possible to sometimes fool one of these technologies, Professor Khosla, a former Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program manager, recommends using any two in conjunction with each other so that there can be no mistake. Furthermore, results should be beamed via wireless link back to a command and control center on the ground for further verification.
The cost of deployment would be minimal as finger print recognition technologies are currently going into production for use in the electronic banking industry. They have a very low failure rate - about one in one million. "They have to be secure for the financial services industry to consider using them," says Professor Khosla.
Indeed, already there are a plethora of PCMCIA Card finger print scanners available for just a couple of hundred dollars from companies such as the Los Gatos, California-based Identix. What will cost money, however, is integrating them into current aircraft equipment and getting them approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.
If the aviation industry wanted to go a step further they could deploy more rigorous biometric technologies such as heart rate scanners. According to Professor Khosla, heart rate signatures are even more unique to each individual then fingerprints.
"Such things are mostly used in the military for special forces or air craft personal," he says. "By capturing the heart rate data and transmitting it wirelessly back to base, you not only know that individual is alive but you also have some indication as to his or her general health."
Once the data is collected you have two choices; First, you can equip the on board computer system to automatically switch to autopilot, fly the plane to a predetermined point and land itself. While most modern aircraft have navigation systems that can land the aircraft on autopilot there is still one snag. The airport needs to be fitted with special sensors that line the runway and tell the aircraft exactly where to land and many airports do not support such advanced systems.
Second, you can hand of the controls to a ground personnel who can remotely control the aircraft and land it at the most convenient spot. Controlling an airplane by remote control is relatively easy. At least, we have the technology. Already, the US Air Force uses unmanned reconnaissance aircraft (UVA) such as the Predator, which is operated much by ground pilots much like a sophisticated pilot simulation machine.
Such remote control systems are not without their problems, however, the Air Line Pilot's Association is opposed to the plan because, they say, that terrorists could breach the command and control center on the ground and gain control of countless commercial airlines.
The logistics would also be staggering entailing dozens of pilots on hand who were cleared to fly the various types of aircrafts and what would these people do when they were not directly engaged flying a plane.
Wireless data links between the command and control center on the ground would also need to be absolutely secure so that malicious hackers could not break into the link and take control of a commercial airliner.
Furthermore, there are few wireless data networks covering the planet that are up to the task. However officials at Boeing, says that the company has developed a new high-speed global communications service called Connexion that will be able to provide a high-speed data services between the aircrafts and the ground using the satellite networks.
The satellite networks that carry the service are not new, say officials, what's is new is the antenna technology that can pickup and push out data streams while the aircraft is flying at 500 miles per hour.
Indeed, most US airliners already offer air-to-ground phone service but they only operate at data speeds from 2.4 to 9.6 kilobits per second.
"Connexion will operate at speeds up to 20 mega bits per second," says Fernando Vivanco, a spokesman for the company.
The system is being tested providing customers in-flight entertainment services such as Internet connection and video on demand.
"We have just begun work with integrating a flight data server and cabin information system," says Mr. Vivanco. "That way the cabin crew could send information such as fuel and oil reserves water levels and so on to the ground crew."
This will reduce the airplane's time on the ground by enabling ground mechanics to prepare the supplies needed to get the plane in the air.
However, Connexion's utility can go much further than that. It could, for example, broadcast black box data to ground control in the event of an emergency, it could be used to remotely control the airplane if there was a problem and it could be used to broadcast back video feeds from the cabin and the cockpit that could be monitored by ground security staff. That way there personal would be on hand to make a quick decision in the event of a hijacking.
Combining the modern elements
Until now, such video feeds were next to impossible requiring too much bandwidth but there are now a few companies providing video for the second-generation mobile phone networks. The San Diego, California-based PacketVideo, for example, offers an MPEG-4 video engine that can camera feeds which can be fed at speeds as low as 1 k bits per second. The company demonstrates the software using a Compaq iPAQ PocketPC, a web camera and a mobile phone network, so presumably deploying the technology in aircraft cabin would not be a problem.
"Even using today's aircraft data-phones you would at least be able to get a feed that would let security officials know what is taking place on the aircraft," says Edward Suski, PacketVideo's marketing director.
Certainly, such systems would help prevent using commercial airplanes as weapons but if we really want to be sure preventing an event such as the attack on the World Trade Center we should 1960s aircraft technology in to the 21 Century, says Ian Shepard, a technology expert with Airclaims a UK-based aviation consultancy.
For example, military aircraft are fitted with a navigation system called enhanced ground proximity warning system or EGPWS. This uses Global Positioning Satellite equipment combined with a gyroscope (to pinpoint the direction of the aircraft) and terrain surface mapping software. That way the aircraft knows exactly what terrain it is flying over - every hill, every building and every obstacle.
"That's how British Royal Air Force fighter jets can fly 100 feet off the ground," says Mr. Shepard. "You could combine the EGPWS with the navigation and autopilot equipment on a commercial airliner to make sure that an aircraft could not be flown towards a building such as the World Trade Center or the Seers Tower."
Still, such systems are likely to beef up the already staggering cost of commercial jets but there maybe little choice if we are to restore customer confidence in the air travel industry. After all, even if a transatlantic flight is 22 times safer than popping down to the local store to buy a carton of milk in your car, one or two more disasters like September 11 and the air travel business may never recover.
Niall McKay is a freelance writer living in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at www.niall.org.