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Boffins look to technology to thwart airline hijacks

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Aircraft designers are looking to technology to combat onboard threats. Moves to develop technology in planes designed to foil hijacking began after the 11 September terrorist attacks.

Last week's arrests over a plot to destroy aircraft flying between the UK and US with chemical explosives establishes a new attack scenario.

Within around five years, researchers hope to install technology that will create a "last barrier to attack" by bringing planes with anti-hijack features into service on commercial routes.

The systems under development include surveillance technology that will warn of suspicious passenger behaviour (although the efficacy of this approach against suicide bombers is unproven) and override technology designed to make it physically impossible to steer planes into buildings or mountains. Further ahead, boffins hope to install technology that would enable a plane to automatically land at the nearest airport, though such systems are unlikely to be developed for at least 15 years.

"You never reach zero level of threat, no risk," program coordinator Daniel Gaultier of French technology firm SAGEM Defense Securite told Reuters. "But if you equip planes with on-board electronics, it will make them very, very difficult to hijack."

The Security of Aircraft in the Future European Environment (SAFEE) project, launched in February 2004, backed by Airbus and aviation technology firm BAE Sytems, is scheduled to last four years and has received €35.8m ($45.7m). The European Commission is ploughing €19.5m ($25m) into the research effort. It's hoped that aircraft featuring anti-hijack technology developed by the project will go into service sometime between 2010 and 2012.

Many of the systems are designed to complement physical security improvements (such as reinforced cockpit doors) introduced since 11 September. Technologies under development include: a tagging system to match passengers and their luggage, biometric systems to verify that a passenger entering an aircraft is the same person who checked in, a Threat Assessment and Response Management System (TARMS) designed to help aircrew to develop appropriate responses to onboard threats, more secure communication system, biometric sensors on cockpit doors, and an automated collision avoidance system.

Close surveillance of passengers raises privacy concerns, but the backers of the project reckon passengers will accept more invasive monitoring for the sake of improved security.

The sensitivity of the system can be adjusted as threat levels vary. That still leaves the possibility of false alarms, but backers of the systems suggest that because pilots and aircrew remain in ultimate control of systems the effect of bogus warnings will be minimised. ®

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