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NASA seeks inflight comms for sky marshals

'Don't call me at work love, I'm undercover'

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NASA is looking into a wireless system which would give undercover sky marshals aboard airliners the ability to communicate with colleagues on the ground, according to reports.

An article filed last Friday by Flight International magazine says NASA's Glenn Research Centre is investigating comms tech which could be available in the near future for airline or passenger use. Both in-aircraft and air-to-ground links are of interest, reportedly.

The NASA request for information has been sent out to companies working in relevant fields. Only those selected to go forward will receive full technical details of the requirement in order to preserve security.

Flight does provide the following quote, however: "In general, federal air marshals on duty need to be able to communicate with other [marshals] and, potentially, crew members and other law enforcement officers on board the aircraft - as well as with [feds] in ground-based mission operations control centres."

It seems that much of the communication is actually data of one kind or another - perhaps background checks on passengers or what-have-you. However, in-flight sherriffs also need voice at times.

Use of obvious handsets or headsets would clearly be a problem for an armed sky-plod wanting to stay unnoticed in a serious hijack situation. However, undercover security operators have had a technical answer for at least this part of the problem for decades. There's no need for any wire or tube to the ear, or any bulky bluetooth malarkey.

A small, flesh-coloured plastic earpiece can be placed right into the ear canal, receiving signals from a magnetic induction loop worn under the clothes and hooked up to the comms unit of choice. As for the mike, that can be hidden in the clothes too - as we all know from car handsfree sets, microphones don't have to be right next to the mouth.

(None of this would remain undiscovered if the sky marshal got searched; but then neither would his or her shooter.)

The big snag, in an airline situation, is carrying the voice or data channel from the marshal to whoever he's talking to. This shouldn't be an enormous technical obstacle in these satellite days, but it may not be simple even so. Getting wireless devices certified is especially troublesome in the aviation environment. Industry-wide standardisation might also be a bit tricky.

Meanwhile, plans for inflight GSM mobile calls are well advanced on some non-US carriers.

There are covert induction-loop rigs available for mobile phones already, suitable in many cases for covert security use. An armed operative on flights like this could simply telephone people using a GSM phone ("Hello!? No! We're being hijacked! HIJACKED!... No, I don't want a pizza").

If NASA doesn't get a hustle on, then, its investigation may become somewhat irrelevant.

The Flight article is available in full here. ®

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