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Protecting Cities from Hijacked Planes 971

Kong99 writes "A group at UC-Berkeley has proposed Soft Walls to stop hijacked planes from entering a protected airspace. Interesting read especially since they claim it is 'hack' proof."
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Protecting Cities from Hijacked Planes

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  • by CliffSpradlin ( 243679 ) * <> on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:00PM (#6359668) Journal
    This is a really cool idea. I'm all for it.

    Just one concern...what's to stop the hijackers from busting the autopilot controls in the cockpit? I would think that it would be sensitive to bullets or repeated bashing. It's not like you need an autopilot when you're right next to a city, just point the nose and go. What kind of range should these no fly zones have, and what should be protocol for when an airport is in/next to a city?
    • what should be protocol for when an airport is in/next to a city?

      Well this would apply to planes that are not supposed to be in the "soft wall". Basically if you do not have an approved flight plan to be in the area, you can;t come in without being approved.
    • I would imagine (though I don't actually know this of course) that in a modern plane where the navigation system is run all electronically, that there would be part of it which wasn't in the cockpit and accessible to this sort of attack, in fact I would imagine the smart thing to do would be to put the actual computer somewhere else with just a terminal accessible, meaning the computer would stay online and steer away fromt he no fly zone all the same. Perhaps this could be used with a control from the grou
    • what's to stop the hijackers from busting the autopilot controls

      Because I'm guessing they're talking about a layer which is actually integrated into the fly-by-wire controls. And you don't want to smash those, eh? Then neither a pilot nor an auto-pilot could control the danged thing.

  • by Phoenix-kun ( 458418 ) * on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:00PM (#6359673) Homepage
    Even if this process is hack-proof (yet to be seen), anything that forcibly takes control away from the pilot is going to be dangerous. What if the only way to avoid a mid-air collision is to bank into one of these "soft walls"?
    • by florin ( 2243 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:08PM (#6359802)
      Yeah, I agree. The only way for it to discourage terrorist activity would be if there was absolutely no way to override it. And if there were no way to override it it is possible to imagine other situations where this system might actually endanger lives.

      Suppose for instance that an aircraft happens to suffer from a problem like multiple engine failure and the only way to avoid crashing into a densely populated urban area would be to trespass an area of protected airspace. Or the only possible landing opportunity might be an abandoned or smaller private runway or even a stretch of highway which would happen to fall under or near the shield, and this system would prevent the aircraft from maintaining an optimal course. Imagine the public outcry if there were ever a major accident due to the robot taking over. I guess the benefits of this system might outweigh such uncommon occurrences but I can imagine pilots are terrified of relinquishing such an amount of control.
      • I'd bet there would be a way to radio an emergency and have ATC send a revised flight plan giving permission to fly through a restricted area, eliminating the soft wall.
      • by prichardson ( 603676 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:52PM (#6360394) Journal
        What possible benefits? 9-11 was succesful because before 9-11 protocol for dealing with hijackers was cooperate and deal with things when they land. Now it's do whatever possible to keep control of the plane. That simple fact will prevent a hijacker from taking control ever again. Even if they did, the plane would be shot down or retaken by the passengers before it would be allowed to crash into an urban area.

        This system is trash. As you said, someone might have to violate the soft walls in order to avoid a collision. Since their can be no way to overide this an accident could easily happen because of this system. Unfortunately, it will probably get implemented anyway because the public loves their security blanket, even if it is covered with smallpox.
    • Obviously, there's going to be exceptions, like military planes, ambulance helicopters, construction helicopters, police, Air Force 1, and the press.

      So -- what's to stop people from using the excepted planes? Or planes originating in a country where installment of such a system isn't required?

      Hack proof doesn't mean can't be *circumvented*
      And anything larger than an atomic set of instructions is hackable.

    • by DarkMan ( 32280 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:12PM (#6359869) Journal
      That's covered. It's a 'soft' wall - as you get ner to the wall, it generates a small opposition to the pilots actions, and that opposition increases as they get closer.

      So, with a mid air collision scenario, unless both planes are right on the limit of the wall, then the pilots can steer fine. One direction will be slightly less preffered by the autopilot, but that should not be significant, at the outside of the area.

      Note also: That aircraft should not be near the wall off area's anyway, so the situation aught not to arise. It's totally software controlled, so interfacing with teh current mid air collision systems [0] and breaking the wall in that case would be perfeclty feasable.

      I think that's one of the lesser problems with the idea.

      Personally, I'm with the 'bulkhead without a door school of thought (The pilots have a seperate external door. That makes it impossible to physically coerce pilots, because you can't get to them. Problem solved.

      [0] As it stands, the computers in two aircraft nearing collision have a chat, and decide on the two optimal vectors, and then move the planes along those vectors automatically, after ensureing that they will not collide.
      • by drinkypoo ( 153816 ) <> on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:28PM (#6360096) Homepage Journal
        Personally, I'm with the 'bulkhead without a door school of thought (The pilots have a seperate external door. That makes it impossible to physically coerce pilots, because you can't get to them. Problem solved.

        Of course it is always possible to emotionally coerce the pilots, such as by holding the people in the cockpit hostage.

        Maybe it's just me but I suspect we're going to end up with a plane with not only a reinforced cockpit but also some sort of nonlethal incapacitation gear for the cockpit. Of course then someone will come up with the idea of holding the plane hostage with something on a deadman switch... But getting that on the plane may prove problematic. I suggest hiding it within a video game system. :P

    • by blibbleblobble ( 526872 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:15PM (#6359926)
      "What if the only way to avoid a mid-air collision is to bank into one of these "soft walls"?"

      This is why pilots don't like the idea.

      What if I setup my own NDB/DME and get it to transmit an identifier saying "new york". Then put it at the end of a runway...

      • by stinky wizzleteats ( 552063 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @03:01PM (#6361274) Homepage Journal

        What if I setup my own NDB/DME and get it to transmit an identifier saying "new york". Then put it at the end of a runway...

        I am a pilot in training. This isn't funny. It's insightful. Faking a VOR is mind-numbingly simple, and an un-overrideable transmitter in the wrong place activated at the wrong time could be catastrophic. Placed at the end of a runway, it could be used to force an aircraft to immediately initiate an extremely hard bank in a situation where the airspeed and other factors make that maneuver basically instant death. There is also the problem that stuff goes wrong. (And yes, I do keep track of where the autopilot circuit breaker is) As a pilot, I simply cannot have a flight system that seizes control of the aircraft because of the possibility that it may go wrong. No one would begin to tolerate such a system if installed in an automobile. I would hate to think that we don't extend that thought to aircraft simply because so few of us are pilots.

        • "This isn't funny. It's insightful. Faking a VOR is mind-numbingly simple, and an un-overrideable transmitter in the wrong place activated at the wrong time could be catastrophic."


          GPS can't be used as a primary navigation device because it's not accurate or reliable enough. GPS was designed for soldiers in the desert who can't map-read, not for landing planes with*. Galileo, when it's launched, will be accurate enough to land planes by (centimetre-accuracy), but it doesn't exist yet.

          * If GPS f
          • GPS can't be used as a primary navigation device because it's not accurate or reliable enough.

            Actually, GPS is accurate enough for navigation. It's accurate enough for an approach, but not necessarily a full landing landing. With differential GPS, it can be accurate enough for landing.

            Reliability is another issue. That's the function of WAAS: monitor and ensure the integrity of the GPS signal, warning the user if it is out-of-spec.

            There's a reason the autopilot cut-off switch is so prominent (by t

    • Yes, something the pilot can not override is dangerous. The reporter got an earfull of it:

      They could even allow planes to be hijacked from the ground if terrorists managed to take over air-traffic control sites.

      Well, duh, if it works by radio, people will listen to it and figure out how to take control. If some big dumb company like Microsoft makes it, there will be a buffer overflow in some unnecessary chunk that gives complete control of the flight control system. I imagine a scenerio where a terror

    • by row314 ( 463264 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:21PM (#6360013)

      Exactly. The lack-of-a-clue is blazingly obvious in the last paragraph:

      He has yet to convince the people who fly the planes. "In general, pilots are openly hostile," he says. "Frankly it surprises me, because of all of the options that they are facing right now - including being shot at or commandeered from the ground - this is their best one."

      He doesn't seem to realize that in many scenarios activation of his system would amount to a fight between the pilot (on the spot with full human judgement, and theoretically with life-and-death authority over everyone else aboard) and the programmers (present by limited proxy, i.e. the hardware and software involved). Sure, human judgement is fallible, but A) it can adapt in real time, and B) machine "judgement" is usually just a stimulus/response system set up by one or more humans. If the program covers all contingencies, great... but is that really the way to bet?

    • by SuperBanana ( 662181 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:27PM (#6360086)
      Even if this process is hack-proof (yet to be seen), anything that forcibly takes control away from the pilot is going to be dangerous.

      Ding ding ding! Thank you. One need look only as far as the Airbus A-320 that crashed at an airshow while doing a low fly-by; the computer prevented the pilot from increasing power to the engines, and the plane mowed a 200 foot wide swath through the forest and exploded in flames.

      Several people were killed,and the pilot was scapegoated by Airbus; they claimed he was flying at 30 feet, not 70- that he had switched off the computer systems, etc. The flight recorder was removed by an AIRBUS EMPLOYEE from the crash scene(there's news footage of him carrying the box away!) and the box disappeared for a day or two. It was then mysteriously returned to the French police...and guess what? There was a large gap in the flight recorder's data, and it showed rather incriminating evidence(for the pilot.)

  • by Graspee_Leemoor ( 302316 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:01PM (#6359677) Homepage Journal
    Never claim anything is hack-proof if you don't want to get hacked.

    Especially do not claim that safety-critical systems are hack-proof, since even people who wouldn't normally try to hack them will try.

    It's like security through obscurity- in this case more like security through non-boasting. The same thing applies- it doesn't really make you more secure, but it stops a lot of people from trying.


    • by Creepy Crawler ( 680178 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:05PM (#6359746)
      That's the BEST way to find bugs. Simply promise the world that it's HACK PROOF. When there's some published loophole, they fix it. Then comes round 2 of "This versions' HACK PROOF".

      How else do you encourage hackers to take their skills on something normal debuggers wont find? You make it a challensge and openly state it's the best secure.
  • The twin tower attack was a one-time thing; neither it nor anything like it will ever work again, especially after all the media attention and tactical commentary the attack received.

    This is a solution to a problem which will never come up again in anything near the form it did. It's interesting to think about and expand our engineering knowhow with but it's worthless as a Real Solution to a Real Problem.
    • I disagree - the only reason it may be a one-time thing is because people are being vigilant in their defenses and security regarding this. I'm sure another 20 guys wouldn't mind suiciding into some more buildings if they could. This makes it so that they can't. I like it.
      • by LostCluster ( 625375 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:19PM (#6359981)
        There are some changes that will never be reversed as a result of 9-11-01.

        It used to be that the standard hijacking protocol called for the flight crew to welcome the hijacker into the cockpit. It was assumed that the hijacker would not know how how to fly the plane and also wanted to live, and therefore would need the help of the pilot to land safely. Moreover, the pilots were trained to take the hijacker anywhere within the plane's fuel range they wanted to go, because the situation would be best resolved with the plane landed safely no matter where that turned out to be. That plan worked pretty well before 9-11-01.

        The idea of having a suidical pilot among the hijackers worked exactly 3 times on 9-11-01. On Flight 93, the plot failed because the passengers and crew had been informed of the previous hijackings and they changed the defense. Knowing that their lives were already lost, the passengers had no incentive to cooperate with the hijackers, and the "Let's Roll" offense was formed.

        Now, the cockpit door is locked before the first non-crew member is permitted on the plane. Nobody's getting into the cockpit during the flight anymore. Anybody trying to defeat the cockpit door lock will be seen, and will be attacked by the flight crew and/or air marshals... You've seen the stories on what they do to passengers who just try to stand up within the last 30 minutes of a Washington, D.C.-bound flight now...

        It's kinda sad, when I was a kid they used to open the door and let kids look into the cockpit while boarding the plane. That's no more and will never be again.
    • ...claiming something is "hack-proof", or claiming that something like the 9/11 attacks will never happen again.

      The reality is that people are [still] regularly getting contraband through security checkpoints. Great, there are bars on the cockpit doors now, but I'm not willing to bet thousands of lives on that alone.

      I personally doubt anyone will TRY this type of attack in the near future, but to claim it will never work again seems pretty bold.
    • by BWJones ( 18351 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:09PM (#6359811) Homepage Journal
      The twin tower attack was a one-time thing; neither it nor anything like it will ever work again, especially after all the media attention and tactical commentary the attack received.

      Actually, there is nothing preventing a dedicated individual or group from doing just this thing. If one owns their own large aircraft, (lots and lots of individuals own large commercial type aircraft) there is nothing to prevent crazed people from doing just this sort of thing on innumerable targets. The problem with terrorism is that it is almost impossible to prevent all possible events without a complete lockdown on society. The best possible solution is to prevent folks from feeling disenfranchised, uneducated and angry.

  • Hack proof (Score:2, Informative)

    by Gog ( 19835 )
    Because the system is not dependant on ground input.

    So I suppose there was nobody in those 4 planes...

  • Peace (Score:4, Insightful)

    by noah_fense ( 593142 ) <(moc.liamg) (ta) (namehthaon)> on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:01PM (#6359692)

    Peace in the middle east would also solve a good portion of the problem (from an engineering perspective) and it doesn't cost millions of dollars. AND it is immune to hacking.

    • Re:Peace (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Wyatt Earp ( 1029 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:13PM (#6359887)
      Peace doesn't cost money?

      Since when?

      Peace between Israel and Egypt costs billions of dollars a year in aid, assistance, fixed oil prices and so on.

      The end of the Cold Wars costs hundreds of millions of dollars a year in securing old facilities, clean up and decommissioning weapons systems.

      Peace between the Koreas costs billions of dollars a year in salaries, equipment expendatures, aid and assistance.

      Even if Hamas, Hizbollah, Islamic Jihad and the Israels all sat down, smoked the peace pipe and buried the M-16s there would be people not satisfied and they would conduct terrorist operations.

      Even if the United States hadn't Tomahawked the Sudan and Afghanistan following the Embassy bombings and played the Peace card to the Taliban there still would have been terror.
      • Re:Peace (Score:3, Insightful)

        by rzbx ( 236929 )
        You forgot to mention all the aid the U.S. has provided for war. We all know how important military aid in the form of weapons is to accomplishing peace. I bet those terrorists think very highly of the U.S. for supplying all those weapons.
        As a peace negotiator we can't take sides or else we take some of the crossfire.
  • When you have the case where for whatever reason the only way a plane can recover from something is t bank into a softwall and because of this overide it can't and crashes.

    Don't even mention bugs!
  • It's an autopilot that cannot be disabled. I'm sure pilots will love giving complete trust to a system that could become corrupt in mid-flight, and that has authority over their decisions.

    What happens when they need to make an emergency landing and there's a "soft wall" around the best landing spot?

    --Pat /

    • That sounds about as much fun as the ejection systems for tactical helicopters that were brainstormed back in the day (and keep getting revived for some stupid reason).

      One was explosives around the rotor head that blew when you pulled the ejection handle, making the blades fly off before you blasted through the plane of the rotor disk. Not many folks really trusted the sequencing to work right when needed. I have heard of a syncronized system theory too, but I think the blades move too fast through the p
  • by Nintendork ( 411169 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:03PM (#6359707) Homepage
    From the Enforcing a No-Fly Zone picture:

    Plane tries hard to fly into zone but soft walls keep it out

    I'm sold!


  • I'm flying along and suddenly I find myself in class 5 turbulence (it shouldn't happen but it does occasionally), so I try to get out, but suddenly the controls of my airplane go stiff and I find myself heading straight for a cell.

    I don't think it sounds like a good idea to me. Allowing an automatic system to control the flight of an aircraft is just asking for trouble. The manual system, if designed and used properly could be much better.

  • Pilot control (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Jad LaFields ( 607990 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:03PM (#6359711)
    They propose modifying the avionics in aircraft so that the plane would fight any efforts by the pilot to fly into restricted airspace

    Somehow this makes me feel a little less safe. I know that so much of flying is electronically controlled now anyway, with autopilot and more, but the there still is the ability for the pilot to actively fly the plane if it becomes necessary, without the plane "fighting" him or here.

    What if the terrorist attack came in a different way, and the pilot had to make "evasive maneuvors" (sp!) or something?
    • Re:Pilot control (Score:3, Insightful)

      by JahToasted ( 517101 )
      Yeah, hasn't there been some crashes been caused by electronic systems erroneously detecting imminent collision and taking control from the pilot? What happens if the navigation systems get screwed up, and it thinks its in a restricted area when its not?

      We've seen probes miss planets because of software bugs. We've seen rockets explode because of software bugs. I don't want a peice of software overiding the pilot. I'll take my chances with the terrorists.

  • Didn't they try this in the dark ages? Huge rivers that flowed around a castle? Are we now doing the modern equivalent? Huge wall around a city?

    [Sarcasm]My what an evolution! [/sarcasm]
  • by Kappelmeister ( 464986 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:04PM (#6359735)
    So if a plane was flying with a no-fly-zone to he left, and the pilot started banking left to enter the zone, the avionics would counter by banking right. Lee's system, called "soft walls", would first gently resist the pilot, and then become increasingly forceful until it prevailed.

    I can't say I like the idea of a computer having the final say over the direction of an airplane. Even if the intentions are good, pilots need to have the final say. Even Air Traffic Control can't force a maneuver on a pilot, if he or she thinks it is not safe.

    In other words: I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't let you fly there.

  • by sharkey ( 16670 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:05PM (#6359739)
    I thought this was solved by NOT allowing curbside luggage check-in.
  • If human history has taught us anything at all it should be perfectly obvious that nothing is "hack-proof". If there's any reason at all to find a way to accomplish something, get around some security, etc. then someone, somewhere will eventually figure it out. As a species it's one of our best tricks, and I really don't see us stopping anytime soon, and certainly not because it seems difficult or impossible now.
  • by prgrmr ( 568806 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:05PM (#6359743) Journal
    The system would include an on-board database of the GPS coordinates of the no-fly zones. If it sensed an attempt to jam GPS signals it would switch to other navigation aids such as airport beacons. Being independent of ground control means soft walls would be immune to hacking

    Wishful thinking or willful ignorance?

    The database would have to be updated prior to each flight, because the zones would have to be flexible. Points of entry are the main database at each airport, the central database at some government facility, and of course every single aircraft participating in this. Factor in the execptions you know the congresscritters cannot avoid putting into any sort of regulatory legislation, like exemptions from participation from non-commercial planes of a certain size or smaller, and you have a system so full of holes that it would hardly be worth the cost.
  • by sxe_p06 ( 576333 ) <> on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:05PM (#6359745) Homepage
    In other news, shipmakers have launched a new 'un-sinkable' ship today, and dubbed her 'The Titanic'...more to come...
  • I think they just need to locate the airplane spec and set autoclip=off.
  • by ENOENT ( 25325 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:06PM (#6359770) Homepage Journal
    Hmm... Suppose that a plane were somehow to take off with a database of no-fly zones that listed all of the airports within a 1000-mile radius of its destination? Suppose that an updated database is released that accidentally puts O'Hare in a no-fly zone, and it isn't discovered until planes start colliding with each other over Chicago? And what can be done to save a plane that has a corrupted database once it takes off? From the story, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING! You're doomed, see ya later.

    Nice system. I'll walk, thanks.
  • Silly. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MadFarmAnimalz ( 460972 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:07PM (#6359774) Homepage
    Think like a terrorist for a second, will you.

    So what if you can't slam a plane into a building? Your only limits are your creativity.

    If the airplane's softwall control can't be hacked, then perhaps the terorrists can make planes crash into things by guiding them with `pirate soft walls'. Or just making planes crash. I don't think terorriats are lla that picky and choosy.

    This is dumb.

    When will American politics wake up and address the injustices that are the real root of the terrorist problem?
  • by ctucker ( 106081 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:08PM (#6359790) Homepage
    Left, right, left, right, up, down, up, down, left pedal, right pedal, barrel roll left, hit the autopilot button, and BLAMMO, the names of the dev team are scrolling over the inflight movie.
    Sounds like a recipe for air sickness bag sales!
  • Rubbish. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Mmm coffee ( 679570 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:08PM (#6359791) Journal
    Airport security has been stepped up to the point where you can't fart without getting a cavity search. The passengers nowadays will fight a hijacker, and everyone will be on high alert if a plane veers off course. I don't think that having someone crash a plane into a football stadium is going to happen because we're now expecting it. Just like with 9/11 if somebody's going to do a massive attack on civilians it's going to be in a way that nobody expects. All the security checkpoints and super high tech crap in the world won't stop someone who really wants to do damage at a target. They'll find your greatest weakness and strike it when you last expect it to happen. All this soft wall BS is a little something extra to make Joe Sixpack feel safe so he can continue drooling all over himself. (Mod me as a troll, but it really is true.)
  • Shocking! (Score:3, Funny)

    by kvigor ( 66615 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:09PM (#6359806)
    "In general, pilots are openly hostile," he says. "Frankly it surprises me..."

    The devil you say! Those darn whiny pilots and their "control" and their "not dying in screaming terror because their controls have beem r00t3d"!

  • by doublem ( 118724 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:10PM (#6359832) Homepage Journal
    Great idea until someone needs to make an emergency landing on a C.D. Highway (Many Highways were required by law to have a certain amount of space that could be used as a landing strip) only to find the "Soft Wall" directs them into the orphanage next to the greyhound station where 2,000 nuns are loading up for their trip the the annual "Sisters of Mercy and free medical care division" convention.

    And let's not get started on what being inside a "soft Wall" would do to properly values, and what being in the likely "Tried to hit the soft wall but ended up here" zone would do to the value of your property.

    And who wants to be a whole slew of the wealthy will ante up to get their homes listed as being in a "Soft Wall"

    And what about an out of date "Soft Wall" database that prevents a small plane from landing in a newly constructed airport?

    And what about the manual override? There's ALWAYS a manual override. Just ask Riff.
  • Impractical (Score:5, Interesting)

    by russx2 ( 572301 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:10PM (#6359833)
    If I were a pilot, I would certainly not feel safe knowing that the plane will prevent me from entering certain airspace beyond my control. It's all well and good in theory... until the shit hits the fan.

    Aside from the obvious risk of software problems (why is the plane trying to veer into that mountain?!) there's also the risk of unpredictable circumstances. What happens if some freaky weather condition needs we need to divert the flight path over a city to evade it etc.? Of course, the answer is to include an 'off' switch but then this defeats the whole point.

    Also if it relies on GPS, would it not be possible to just jam the positioning signal from within the plane?

    A clever(ish) idea but like a lot of ideas, just too impractical.
  • Completely useless (Score:5, Insightful)

    by z84976 ( 64186 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:11PM (#6359854) Homepage
    Sure, it will work IF the airplane is so equipped. What's to stop me from loading up my old Cessna 182 with 1000 pounds of explosives and absolutely ignoring that soft wall? (ok, aside from the fact that 1000lbs will pretty much wreck a 182) What facility is there in the avg general aviation airplane that will ALLOW something to take control like that? Nothing.

    It's just yet more knee-jerk reaction by people who get a warm fuzzy feeling from pretending they're doing something useful, when in reality they are just wasting time money and effort.

  • by istartedi ( 132515 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:15PM (#6359924) Journal

    ...a group at Bellevue has planned soft walls for anybody crazy enough to believe something "can't be hacked".

  • by bill.sheehan ( 93856 ) * on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:22PM (#6360021) Homepage
    This scheme sounds a lot like a puzzle in the old Infocom game, "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." []. If memory serves, there's a point at which you try to enter the engine room.

    > enter room
    This could be dangerous. Are you sure?
    > Y
    Are you REALLY sure?
    > Y
    Are you REALLY, REALLY sure?
    > Y
    I could tell you weren't really sure. You turn around and walk away. Telegrams from all over the galaxy arrive praising your prudence...

    Autopilot: "I could tell you didn't really want to avoid that oncoming jumbo jet by turning left into a no-fly zone. Have a nice afterlife..."

  • by SiliconEntity ( 448450 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:24PM (#6360043)
    This is a terrible idea for many reasons.

    First, most cities are not "restricted airspace". There are no prohibitions against flying over all kinds of areas where just as much damage could be done as happened on 9/11. And in fact, you can't protect cities in this way, because they tend to put airports near cities. So this proposal fails to achieve its most basic security goal.

    In fact, most restricted airspace is over isolated areas and is used for military training. It is restricted only so that combat pilots don't have to worry about accidentally ramming into jetliners.

    Second, these days one of the main forms of security related restricted airspace is the Temporary Flight Restriction, TFR. This follows the president all over the country as he campaigns for the 2004 elections. But since the locations of the TFRs change daily and unpredictably, there would be no reliable way for the avionics to be loaded with the current TFR locations. Hence the proposal would fail to address one of the main current security concerns.

    Third, there are significant safety issues involved. Every system is prone to failure. What happens when the gadget mistakenly activates and starts trying to turn the plane? The pilot will be fighting with the controls at a time when he may be distracted trying to land in bad weather. The system could easily kill many more people than it would save.

    And fourth, there are occasions when there is a legitimate need to enter restricted airspace, such as during an emergency. A dumb gadget like this cannot be expected to understand that an engine is failing or that the control surfaces are damaged, and the pilot needs to get the plane on the ground pronto! Military bases, with their ultra-long runways and isolation from civilians, are ideal locations for emergency landings; but they are generally in restricted airspace. Again, imagine the scenario of trying to land a crippled airliner while battling a robot which insists that you don't have the right to land there!

    All in all this is such a bad idea that it's clear that no one involved has any experience with the aviation business and what the real security issues are.
    • by deblau ( 68023 ) <> on Thursday July 03, 2003 @02:38PM (#6361015) Journal
      I Am A Student Pilot. I was going to write precisely your post, but it looks like you beat me to it. Let me just add by instructing those who don't know anything about flying about the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR 91.3):
      Responsibility and authority of the pilot in command.

      (a) The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.
      (b) In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency.

      91.3(a) is the reason why "In general, pilots are openly hostile" to the idea of soft walls. Onboard avionics and fly-by-wire software do not make command decisions, nor should they. Pilots take their responsibilities very seriously -- oftentimes your life is in their hands. They are skilled workers in whom the federal government has entrusted final authority as to where they can fly their own aircraft. This software attempts to usurp that authority, and its use in any aircraft would likely require rewriting the FARs. I guarantee any such attempt would result in a bitter feud between pilots and whomever tries to push this system.

      Second, as was already pointed out, onboard software can't be expected to know, for example, when a passenger is having a heart-attack and the only airport for miles is in a 'restricted area'. 91.3(b) explicitly gives pilots the right to land at a military base, or near a Presidential TFR, or anywhere else they damn well please in such cases. With the new system: "We didn't crash into any buildings, but Bob died, oh well". I smell lawsuit. What about an emergency override, you ask? The system can't have an override switch anywhere a pilot could get to it, or it's effectively useless (hijacker flips the switch).

      Kill this thing, and let the pilots get back to flying their planes.

  • by TrekkieGod ( 627867 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:28PM (#6360090) Homepage Journal
    If the soft wall only acts by resisting attempts by the pilot to fly into it...what happens if a terrorist pilot flies higher up to a certain altitude, sets course to where he wants to hit, starts breaking everything in the cockpit to crash the plane in that general direction?

    Basically what I'm saying is...if the pilot purposefully loses control of the plane towards the right direction, can the "soft wall" system regain control? I'd say probably not, and it sounds like this doesn't help any problem whatsoever, and it certainly creates some:

    I can see a pilot maneuvering around a big city, getting in line to land...accidentally he starts to move towards the "soft wall"...the system forces him to return, right in the area where there are other airplanes. That sounds like a traffic control nightmare, one more thing for those poor guys to be aware of, one more thing to give them ulcers.

  • How long until... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Mondoz ( 672060 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:29PM (#6360103)
    How long until all passengers are sedated upon boarding, packed into sleeping chambers, and treated as cargo?

    Comatose passengers aren't likely to hijack a plane... Especially if they're isolated from the flight crew.

    The way they did it in the 5th Element is the way to go...

  • by Catbeller ( 118204 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:34PM (#6360163) Homepage
    It's not going to happen again. The reason why three of the the four hijacked planes hit the attackers' targets is this: no one on the planes, not the pilots, not the passengers, not the attendents, had an inkling that the hijackers were intent on crashing the planes. It had never happened before.

    Standard procedure for a hijacking is to cooperate with the hijackers to minimize harm to the people on the plane.

    If the people on a hijacked plane know that they are on a doomed aircraft, the attackers have no leverage. The Pennsylvania flight was different from the other three in that the passengers ignored the-plane-will-crash-if-we-use-cellphones rule, called their families, got the lowdown, and then attacked the terrorists. The terrorists lost. The mission failed.

    Mr. Shoe-Bomb also failed because the passengers gang-beat his ass. Mission failed.

    Every plane hijacked in the future will have passengers that will not cooperate. The pilots won't cooperate. Missions to use airliners as bombs are now useless: any sane attacker will of course now use other methods.

    Creating softwalls and turning our country into a AA-covered bunker is idiotic. Attacks via planes can't succeed. At the very least, the pilots will slam the plane into a field to save the lives of thousands.

    I worry at the irrationality of the actions of the people of the U.S. Shutdown of the Constitution. Illegal attacks against non-threatening countries. Concentration camp in Cuba, complete with execution chamber (coming soon). Cameras everywhere. Reading everyone's mail.

    You know, the attackers communicated face-to-face, so NONE OF THIS WOULD HAVE STOPPED THEM.

    We're turning the U.S. into an prison populated by people constantly agitated by their warden into a state of hysterical paranoia.

    Listen, the people who really, really wanted to blow us up died in the planes. They are dead. They aren't in Iraq. They aren't everyone who speaks Arabic. They aren't being tortured in little white jail cells across the U.S.

    Any future attack will come from a different front. And frankly, these men aren't that bright: they're cultists to begin with, so 9/10 of their brain cells are useless anyway.

    The few loonies who want to attack us will do so no matter how many cameras are over our beds. Now, on the other hand, by attacking non-combatants all over the world, Bush Inc. has converted infinite good will into an implacable wall of resistance, not because of what we are, or the insanity of our enemies, but because of what we have done to people who had nothing to do with the 911 attackers. 2,000-10,000 dead in Iraq: Perle and Wolfowitz refuse to give an accounting. Bush has insulted and alienated the entire world when previously he had them firmly on our side. He's like John Adams wandering into Paris in the 1770's, who insulted and patronized the very people Franklin had so carefully cultivated into supporting the U.S. Adams, like Bush, nearly lost the war by his gross incompentency in diplomacy, his raw moral fanaticism, his ignorance of other nation's cultures, and his blind nationalism.

    Soft walls won't save us from Bush's stupidlity in dealing with, well, ANYTHING.
  • BAD IDEA! (Score:3, Informative)

    by Lodragandraoidh ( 639696 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:41PM (#6360233) Journal
    There are several reasons why this is a bad idea:

    1. Most large metropolitan airports are in or near areas where these 'softwalls' would be deployed. Take a look at the restrictions placed on takeoff and landings from Washington International (you basically have to fly down the Patomac River and make a hard left on short final to avoid restricted airspace over the White House and Congress. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't want an autopilot to take control of the aircraft on short final if it didn't like my flight path. On takeoff - from the south - you have to similarly make a hard left turn barely wheels-up).

    Putting this into effect would leave very little leeway for situations where the aircraft can not meet the minimum flight parameters (climb rate not up to snuff due to engine failure, damage to a control surface that prevents a turn at the proper rate to miss the restricted area, etc...) What was an emergency will become a disaster if control is removed from the pilot.

    2. Legally a pilot is responsible for the safety of the flight. Many times the cause of accidents can be traced to pilot error. With this system in place, every accident near a restricted zone would raise questions - to what degree did the pilot and the autopilot contribute to the accident? This would be a legal can of worms (the cost of which would be born by the traveling public).

    3. Who would certify that these systems are infallable without pilot control? If a pilot can not 'hack' the system - i.e. turn it off, then it had better be perfectly safe, as per FAA standards for other avionics. Avionics and flight instruments are designed to allow redundancy in the form of multiple backup systems - if one breaks, the pilot is trained to use backup systems to correlate the data lost from the main indicator. Unfortunately, since a pilot is prohibited from interacting with this system - how would we be 100% sure that the system would function under all conditions?

    History has shown too many times that misapprehension of a technology's limitations often leads to disaster - the Titanic comes to mind. Until we can certify that a computer can function with uncertain and incomplete information effectively under all conditions (currently humans are the only ones that can do this satisfactorily), then I would not want to stake my life on this technology.

    I am both a pilot and a software developer, having the hubris to think I have insight into this problem.
  • by Khelder ( 34398 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @01:47PM (#6360318)
    This story is about researchers from the University of California at Berkeley [] (a.k.a. U.C. Berkeley or Cal), not the University of Berkley [].
  • Not necessary (Score:3, Insightful)

    by angle_slam ( 623817 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @02:13PM (#6360668)
    Since 9/11 there have been several incidents where the passengers of a plane acted against threats (including the shoe bomber case). Passengers will not allow 9/11 to happen again.

    The reason 9/11 happened in the first place was because pilots and passengers had always been taught to cooperate with terrorists under the assumption that the terrorists will land the plane somewhere and make demands. Once it was shown that hijackers will pilot planes into buildings (an attack unheard even by 'experts'), passengers (starting with the 4th hijacked plane) will gang up on a hijacker and prevent the hijacking from happening. And pilots will do anything to prevent a hijacker from gaining control of the plane.

  • "Hack proof?" (Score:5, Insightful)

    by bobdehnhardt ( 18286 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @02:16PM (#6360703)
    Two words: circuit breaker. Every avionics system has to have one, or you run the risk of an overloaded circuit causing a fire onboard, with disasterous results. And every circuit breaker must be accessible in-flight, so that they can be reset if necessary, or manually popped if there's smoke but not enough current to pop it normally.

    Pull the breaker, bye-bye soft wall.

    Technology is not always the answer (ooo, can I say that here?)
  • Hell, no. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by OverCode@work ( 196386 ) <> on Thursday July 03, 2003 @02:29PM (#6360862) Homepage
    This is an absolutely dangerous idea.

    The concept of "pilot in command" is extremely important in the FAA's rulebook, and is hard set in aviation culture. It's very simple; one person in the cockpit is the pilot in command (PIC), and he or she is directly, completely, and personally responsible for anything that happens to that plane while it is in the air.

    The FAA's rules also clearly state that, in an emergency, the PIC is authorized to do anything necessary to take care of the emergency, even if it breaks every other rule in the book. For instance, if my engine failed and there was no civilian airport in range, I could legally land on a city street or a military airstrip, fly through restricted airspace, override ATC commands, etc.

    So what happens if my engine fails, I need to get to an airport on the other side of a major city, and that city is "protected"? Suppose I have just enough altitude to get there at my best glide rate. Will the airplane override my inputs and resist my approach over the city?

    What happens if "soft barriers" prevents the pilot from safely responding to a systems malfunction? A lot of flight does occur over dense urban areas (the final approach to Santa Monica airport passes just a few hundred feet over some downtown towers). Who is responsible for the non-optimal response: the pilot in command, or the soft barriers system?

    "Oh, but that'll never happen," one might respond. Go to the NTSB's aircraft accident report site and read some reports. Aircraft are complex mechanical devices, and they can and do fail all the time, often in subtle and bizarre ways.

    As a pilot, I won't get anywhere near a plane with "soft barriers", even as a passenger.

  • Forget 'soft' walls (Score:3, Interesting)

    by bheerssen ( 534014 ) <> on Thursday July 03, 2003 @04:37PM (#6362424)
    I'm all for hard walls. Like the kind you put between the cockpit and the passenger cabin. The kind without doors. Good strong ones, too - made of thick plate steel. Make the terrorists bring a big torch to cut through it, instead of just busting down a door.

    The airlines are sure to hate this idea. For them, it would mean they'd have to install sealed external doors just for the cockpit. Not to mention the extra crew support items - like a bathroom, separate provisions for meals, etc. That gets pretty damned expensive.

    For us, it would mean that there would be no way to reach the cockpit. That means that there would be little reason to be searched for minor items like nail files and pocket knives. No more long waits at overcrowded and intrusive checkpoints. I mean, yeah, a terrorists could still kill people, or even everyone on board, but they'd have a hell of a time getting through a steel partition and flying the plane into a building.
  • by SerialHistorian ( 565638 ) on Thursday July 03, 2003 @07:18PM (#6363699)
    What do you do when your airplane says, "I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that."
  • by Tracy Reed ( 3563 ) <treed AT ultraviolet DOT org> on Thursday July 03, 2003 @07:19PM (#6363708) Homepage really understand all of the problems with this idea. For one thing paying passenger aircraft have to be certified and one of the requirements is that the pilot be able to overpower any installed autopilot system. They would have to change the rules. But this sort of thing would introduce so much expense and complication and additional safety risks and new modes of failure that it will not be implemented. It's hard enough just to get something like TCAS or even GPS installed. It saddens me to think that my two passions in life (computers and flying) are also two of the most misunderstood fields around.

    Tracy R Reed
    PP-ASEL-IA and soon to be CP and CFI

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