Safe on a plane?

Hijack-proof airliners may be taking to the skies in a few years time, thanks to a European aerospace industry project that combines computer-aided cabin monitoring and highly secure flight controls.

Following 9/11, president George Bush called for the development of technology that would enable air traffic controllers on the ground to fly hijacked planes to safety.

Five years later, while the world’s airports have embraced increasingly sophisticated levels of security, the aircraft industry’s efforts to quell passengers’ fears haven’t really gone much beyond reinforcing cockpit doors.

This could all be about to change, however, thanks to an ambitious pan-European effort to restore confidence in air travel through the development of a hijack-proof airliner.

The €36m (£24.3m) SAFEE project (security of aircraft in the future European environment) is jointly funded by the EC and a consortium of 31 companies including BAE Systems, Thales, EADS, Airbus, and French electronics giant SAGEM, which is the project’s leader.

According to SAFEE co-ordinator Daniel Gaultier of SAGEM, the suite of technologies that these companies are developing ‘will represent the last line of defence against the terrorist’.

A key component of SAFEE is the onboard detection system: a package of measures designed to spot terrorists as they attempt to board a plane and detect suspicious behaviour once the plane is the air.

Components of this system will include radio frequency ID (RFID)-enabled boarding cards that match passengers to their luggage, as well as cameras positioned at the entrance of the plane to ensure that the person getting on board is the same person who checked in.

Engineers are also investigating the feasibility of using a hand-held ‘electronic nose’ to screen passengers boarding planes for traces of dangerous chemicals and explosives. Developed by researchers at EADS in Munich, this system combines the technology of an ion mobility spectrometer with a laser beam and is said to be 30 times more sensitive than the nose of a sniffer dog.

It works by sucking the gases given off by chemical substances such as explosives into a measuring device, ionising these gas molecules with a laser beam and determining within seconds whether a threatening substance is present.

If a terrorist makes it past these checks, he or she will then be subjected to the scrutiny of perhaps the most challenging and controversial element of the threat detection system: an onboard network of video and audio sensors that will monitor passengers for signs of suspicious or erratic behaviour.

Dr Catherine Neary, who is in charge of the development of this system at BAE Systems’ Advanced Technology Centre in Filton, near Bristol, explained that her team has built up knowledge of the kind of behaviour to look out for by observing normal passengers during flight trials and interviewing security analysts, air marshals and behavioural psychologists.

Last month, Neary’s group also carried out trials aboard a BAE 146 aircraft in Filton, in which a range of threatening scenarios were reconstructed and filmed using actors. This footage, she said, has been used to develop algorithms for detecting suspicious behaviour.

According to Neary, the system will be capable of distinguishing between normal nervousness bought on by fear of flying and the nervous agitation of someone about to attempt a hijack.

‘We’ve carefully analysed the behaviour of normal nervous passengers and by talking to experts who have looked at the behaviour of terrorists, we think there are some distinguishing features’ she said.

Reading University vision systems specialist Dr James Ferryman, whose group is working closely with BAE, explained that to avoid false alarms, passenger behaviour will be analysed in conjunction with information gathered by other elements of the SAFEE system.

‘It will look for certain cues that alone might not be indicative but over time could be tied to together to suggest something more sinister,’ he said.

‘If a passenger gets up and goes to the toilet three times in an hour, that alone may not be enough, but put together with other information it may raise the significance level.’

Ferryman’s team is developing the technology that will underpin the monitoring system. He explained that while the required cameras and microphones are already available, the big technical challenge is developing algorithms that will rapidly analyse video and audio streams from multiple sources.

‘If you want to monitor passengers on the large planes of the future, you will need to have a fairly extensive network of camera and audio devices — you will have to feed all of these streams into one or more computers and get them to intelligently analyse the images and extract some understanding of behaviour.’

Clearly, as well as the technical challenges, any system used to covertly monitor people will also raise significant privacy concerns, but both Neary and Ferryman believe passengers —particularly those from the CCTV drenched UK — will accept the level of intrusion as a necessary evil.

‘If people can feel safer through the knowledge that they’re being monitored I think they will accept it,’ said Neary.

‘The world has changed,’ said Ferryman. ‘There are serious and real risks; people are willing to try and bring down planes — it’s an urgent issue, and one that can be addressed through technology development’.

Neary added that the data gathered by SAFEE will only be analysed by a computer and will be deleted at the end of flights. She also ruled out the possibility that cameras will be used in toilets, although Ferryman suggested that toilet-based microphones may be acceptable.

The information gathered by the cameras and microphones will be combined with data from other elements of the SAFEE system and fed into a computerised decision-aiding system, also being developed by BAE.

Known as TARMS (threat assessment and response management system), this powerful onboard computer will present the information gathered by the onboard detection system to the pilots and crew in a coherent manner and suggest possible responses to different scenarios.

Mark Drake, who is heading BAE’s work on TARMS, said that most of the time the system will make simple recommendations, such as switching on the seatbelt lights. ‘This could mitigate more serious situations down the line,’ he claimed.

Drake said that the system is similar to technology BAE has developed for the military. ‘Decision aiding systems have been around for a while — the idea is not particularly new, but as the technology and computing power increases year on year you can move it into different domains,’ he explained.

Another potentially controversial aspect of a SAFEE-type system is the extent to which it might erode pilots’ authority. But Drake thinks the balance is just about right in TARMS. ‘As long as pilots have the final say I don’t see there being a conflict,’ he said. ‘TARMS simply makes information more readily understandable.’

BAE has been testing airline crews’ appetite for the system through a SAFEE user club: a group of more than a hundred security people, pilots, and cabin staff that it has been consulting on the impact of the technology. ‘One of the main reasons for having the user club is to assure pilots that they will be kept in the loop,’ said Neary.

As well as displaying information to the cabin crew and pilots, TARMS will also enable them to share their observations on passenger behaviour via control panels in both the cabin and the cockpit. These sophisticated, biometrically protected systems are being developed and tested alongside the TARMS system at the Netherlands National Aerospace Laboratory (NLR) in Amsterdam.

Lennaert Speijker, a senior research and development manager at NLR, said one of the key benefits of this system will be that it will improve communications between the pilots, who are locked in the cabin, and the crew.

Effective and secure communications are at the heart of the SAFEE vision and NLR is also testing secure aircraft-to-ground communications systems. Gaultier, whose company SAGEM is working on this aspect of the system, said SAFEE will be designed so that it is impossible for terrorists to seize control of communications. His group is also investigating the possibility of making the system immune to cyber-attacks.

As well as this, SAGEM is working on the final level of protection: biometric fingerprint and iris scanning systems on the cockpit controls and door. This technology, which will be tested in NLR’s simulator next year, will help prevent terrorists from gaining access to cockpits, but also use fingerprint analysis systems to verify that the pilot is still flying the aircraft.

Speijker said that if a terrorist manages to get this far through the SAFEE system, the choices will be limited. ‘If there is a confirmed hijack there are two options,’ he explained. ‘One is to use automatic systems to avoid terrain, or, as an ultimate last resort, the aircraft will be intercepted by military fighters.’

Fortunately, shooting down hijacked planes doesn’t really figure in SAFEE’s vision of the hijack-proof flight. And before military fighters are called in, the system’s autopilot collision avoidance system will steer the aircraft out of areas presenting immediate danger.

As well as providing the last line of defence, this system is also expected to act as a deterrent. According to the 9/11 commission report, Mohammed Atta, the leader of the hijackers, ruled out using Airbus aircraft as he mistakenly believed them to be equipped with an autopilot system that prevented them from crashing into the ground. All four hijacked aircraft were, instead, Boeings.

Jean-Yves Catros, a project manager with Thales Avionics in France, explained that while existing collision avoidance systems prompt pilots to change direction to avoid a collision, the system being developed for SAFEE will work automatically. ‘We are studying a system that under some activation will allow the aircraft to automatically pull up and will put it in a safe position,’ he said.

Gaultier added that the system will be programmed with a list of sensitive areas the aircraft would be prevented from entering. This could include airspace over towns, nuclear plants or even temporary events such as G8 conferences or the Olympic games.

Despite industry rumours that Airbus would like to increase the levels of automation in its aircraft, both Gaultier and Catros were keen to stress that a remote controlled aircraft is not one of SAFEE’s aims.

‘We are trying to keep the pilot in the loop as much as possible and have excluded the idea that you can push a button on the ground and get the plane to automatically land,’ said Gaultier. ‘This could be done,’ he added, ‘but pilots would be against it, it would require a massive redesign of air traffic systems and would not be well received by passengers — the human brain is better equipped to cope with these situations. The aim of SAFEE is to move forward without extreme solutions.’

An integrated demonstration of SAFEE’s systems is scheduled for February 2008, and while some aspects of the system may find their way onto passenger aircraft relatively quickly, Gaultier said that it is likely to be at least 10 years before a fully functioning SAFEE-enabled airliner enters service.

Despite this, SAFEE’s members are already looking beyond the project to what might be done to further improve security. ‘For the follow up to SAFEE we are thinking of a complete security system, from the boarding pass on the ground to the landing’ said Gaultier.

Reading’s James Ferryman added: ‘In the future we’ll be looking at much more sharing of knowledge and linkage of these systems — you’ll be monitored around the system and this info will also be used onboard.’

He also suggested that, while not part of the SAFEE project, future systems could even make use of the controversial concept of passenger profiling. ‘One could envisage people being monitored as part of a passenger profiling system,’ Ferryman said. ‘If you acted a bit suspiciously in the airport it could be encoded in your passenger profile and used to monitor you more while on board.’