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Automagic No-Fly-Zone Enforcement 536

An anonymous reader writes "SoftWalls is the name of an aviation project at UC-Berkeley that's developing a system for commercial airliners that establishes and enforces no-fly zones. Basically, through GPS, if a plane begins to enter a no-fly zone (eg, around a mountain, or over Lower Manhattan), an alarm goes off in the cockpit. If ignored, the system actively removes control of the plane away from the pilot and co-pilot to steer the plane out of the no-fly zone. The technology is intended as both an accident prevention technique and a deterrent to terrorists planning to ram a building. ABCNews recently profiled the project (with video) and also rode along with a working prototype built by Honeywell that successfully kept a Beechcraft from hitting a mountain."
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Automagic No-Fly-Zone Enforcement

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  • Re:Situation... (Score:3, Informative)

    by mgs1000 ( 583340 ) on Saturday January 03, 2004 @06:37PM (#7869162) Journal
    You just described the Airbus A300. (Except it had the altitude wrong)
  • Re:Situation... (Score:5, Informative)

    by Brahmastra ( 685988 ) on Saturday January 03, 2004 @06:39PM (#7869181)
    You mean Airbus A-320/330/340? They were the first fly-by-wire passenger aircraft and there were various problems with pilots not getting control initially. In one case, a computer malfunction made the plane pitch up continuously to the point of a stall and the pilot couldn't use the controls to lower the nose
  • by Quarters ( 18322 ) on Saturday January 03, 2004 @06:44PM (#7869215)
    The Bush administration is mad with power when it comes to Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs). They enact them with practically no warning and then leave them up well after the reason for their creation is over (e.g. the President goes to city X and 3 weeks later the TFR is still active).

    Currently there are ten (10) TFRs around the US that were enacted soon after 9/11 and/or right before the opening of hostilities against Iraq. There is no need for these TFRs any more, yet the Administration will not instruct the FAA to remove them. The Aircraft Owner's and Pilots Association (AOPA) spends most of their time and money these days fighting the TFRs and ensuring that they are announced with enough lead time so pilots can plan around them and that they are removed in a timely manner. You can read more about it at the AOPA website [].

    This Administration does not need a technology that would enhance the annoyance they are causing priviate pilots!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 03, 2004 @06:48PM (#7869236)
    MPEG1 []
  • Re:Situation... (Score:3, Informative)

    by Brahmastra ( 685988 ) on Saturday January 03, 2004 @06:48PM (#7869237)
    Interesting article [] on pilots, fly-by-wire, etc.
  • by Saeed al-Sahaf ( 665390 ) on Saturday January 03, 2004 @06:49PM (#7869252) Homepage
    The military has been using TCAS for years, although it does not automatically remove pilot control. TCAS is designed to "see" the traffic situation in the vicinity of the aircraft, but similar technology works with large land masses also.

    The core technologies have been around awhile but I think it's important to remember that GPS technology and fast small CPUs are just now becoming "mature", so it's not out of line that these systems are still in the testing phase. Sure, ten years ago maybe you could build such systems with half of the first class section stuffed with hardware...

  • by numbnut ( 627770 ) on Saturday January 03, 2004 @06:57PM (#7869316) Journal
    Umm, yeah. And maybe the super duper computer will make sure that you fill up the gas tanks before you leave and keep the engine from malfunctioning. Stupidity will find a way. It always does.
  • One word: Bugs (Score:5, Informative)

    by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Saturday January 03, 2004 @07:01PM (#7869356) Homepage
    Why wasn't this been implemented before? I don't care a rat arse about terrorists this and terrorists that, but I have lost a few friends in airplane crashes. With these technologies available at least a decade ago (this project is an implementation of a few old technologies) why isn't this a major requirement for all new planes?

    See, if a computer program somehow fucks this up, and ends up flying right towards the mountain instead of away from it, the pilots would realize that this *can't* be right but a computer wouldn't. I'm sure they have lots of *warning* systems, but up until now I don't think anyone has thought that overriding the pilot was a good idea, since up until Sept 11th noone thought anyone would *willingly* crash the plane. Maybe it'd save lives if the pilot had a heart attack and collapsed in his seat, but it's a stretch.

    And another thing - sabotage. If you can compromise this program, you suddenly have the power to crash *every* plane in the air - complete with uber-searched passengers, armed guards and top security clearance pilots. While it is a lot less likely, the consequences would almost be far more catastrophic.

    And face it - hi-jackers in control of a plane can crash it where it does a *lot* of damage anyway - even if it's not dead-center in the Pentagon. If nothing else, fly as close as you can, cut power to the engines and drop like a living dumbfire fuel bomb. How far could you get on a 30,000 feet drop? I'm guessing quite a bit into the "no-fly" zone...

  • They use the RAT (Score:5, Informative)

    by ashitaka ( 27544 ) on Saturday January 03, 2004 @07:05PM (#7869384) Homepage
    The RAT is the Ram Air Turbine, a propeller driven hydraulic pump tucked under the belly of the 767. The RAT can supply just enough hydraulic pressure to move the control surfaces and enable a dead-stick landing. The loss of both engines caused the RAT to automatically drop into the airstream and begin supplying hydraulic pressure.

    The Gimli Glider [] used this to survive the loss of both engines.
  • by nneul ( 8033 ) * <> on Saturday January 03, 2004 @07:07PM (#7869397) Homepage
    Uh, yes. The did consider exactly that possibility. They just did it decades ago, when the largest planes were significantly smaller than they are now. I'm pretty sure I remember reading that the towers were designed to handle being crashed into by planes as large as a 727.

  • by mshultz ( 632780 ) on Saturday January 03, 2004 @07:17PM (#7869455)

    Others have already pointed out that people did design the towers to withstand a plane impact--- but, aside from the sizes of aircraft getting bigger of the years, fuel capacity has increased as well. It seems like the speculation has been that most of the significant structural failure of the WTC towers actually resulted from the intense heat of the fuel fires, not impact.

  • counterspoofing (Score:3, Informative)

    by segment ( 695309 ) <sil@ p o l i t r> on Saturday January 03, 2004 @08:07PM (#7869720) Homepage Journal
    Extract: Civilian Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers are vulnerable to attacks such as blocking, jamming, and spoofing. The goal of such attacks is either to prevent a position lock (blocking and jamming) or to feed the receiver false information so that it computes an erroneous time or location (spoofing). GPS receivers are generally aware of when blocking or jamming is occurring because they have a loss of signal. Spoofing, however, is a surreptitious attack. Currently, no countermeasures are in use for detecting spoofing attacks. We believe, however, that it is possible to implement simple, low-cost countermeasures that can be retrofitted onto existing GPS receivers. This would, at the very least, greatly complicate spoofing attacks.

    GPS Spoofing Countermeasures [], Jon S. Warner, Roger G. Johnston -- Los Alamos National Labs

  • by ipjohnson ( 580042 ) on Saturday January 03, 2004 @08:20PM (#7869778)
    How this got modded to insightful is beyond me because you know nothing about commercial aviation. I'll try and speak to a few of your points.

    There's considerations of how bad the weather may be in one direction

    How do you think the pilot knows of bad weather ... oh thats right he gets ground reports through his computer ... (and if it comes from ATC it can be hand entered into the computer.

    which engine may have failed causing difficulty in turning in one direction,

    Currently all the new aircrafts coming out are fly-by-wire (777,A320,A380) so the computer has to handle this already. Further more how do you know which engine is out without the computer (the insturments are run by one of the myriad of computers on board).

    which heading the aircraft needs to be on after completing a turn to line up with the desired runway so as to make a landing the first time

    First of how do you think it work now 99% of the time you are in the air the FMC is guiding the plane including *gasp* your headings out of turns towards your runway (yes I know the FCC is where the real control logic for the autopilot is but it tries to fly to what the FMC is telling it).

    how critical is it to get to a certain altitude rapidly

    You know what the FMC is going to be able to calculate out how fast you can and can't climb a hell of alot better than any human (yes I know you can do a general calc of how fast you can climb based on your gross weight / alt / airspeed / and your possible thrust but you can't do it nearly as accurate or quick so would you really want to?)

    Now mind you I dont like the idea of taking away control from a human because computers can fail (I know there are 3 FMC (well the new 777 is actually a different cabinet setup but you get the idea)) and I want a human watching. They get paid rediculous money so let them do their jobs.

    So next time before you do some arm chair piloting get your facts straight.
  • by noahbagels ( 177540 ) on Saturday January 03, 2004 @09:00PM (#7869949)
    I can't believe people would be soo strong to propose fully computer-controlled airplanes, without manual override, while most of our nations metro systems have drivers.

    The factors that affect flight (I'm a private pilot pp-asel) are soo diverse and include decision making far more complex than "should I turn here to avoid airspace xyz". In an emergency - say an engine failure, oil leak, etc, pilots *are* allowed to violate any airspace restriction to avoid injury / deaths. Here are the federal regulations that are pertinent:

    FAR = "federal aviation regulations" which comprise section 14 of the Federal Law Registry.

    FARs part 91 = General Operating and Flight Rules
    * general (non commercial) aviation falls under part 91.

    FAR 91.3b = "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".

    Far 91.141 restricts flight in the vicinity of the president and president's related parties. It is clearly in part 91, and can be deviated from in an emergency.

    My flight instructor had a partial engine failure in a twin engine aircraft during training at Oakland - and dealing with the emergency required flying below a the legal 1000' altitude above populated areas. In fact he flew at 500' in the pattern which is below the "500' from people or property rule". If the plane attempted to climb on a partially failed engine, they would have likely crashed and all (3 aboard) perished.

    There are 1000s of anecdotes, but feel free to go over to rec.aviation.piloting or r.a.student to read more. Having computers override pilots is a very bad idea - in the minds of virtually all actual pilots.

    The likelyhood of true disasters coming from airplanes that take control from pilots is pretty high in my book. The likelyhood of armed terrorists being able to disable such a system also seems pretty high... ever heard of a wire-cutter? How about a gps jammer?

    Final note: GPS is not perfect! I've flown two different C172s with Garmin 430 and 530 equipment, and both misplaced class-B (the only airspace below 18000' requiring a clearance to enter) airspaces by several nautical miles. If such gps ever misplaced a mountaintop, or the plane's position by even a couple of miles, it could forcebly cause a crash under near-ideal conditions.
  • Skyhook ... the book (Score:2, Informative)

    by Tacoguy ( 676855 ) on Saturday January 03, 2004 @09:13PM (#7870004)
    John J. Nance has a new fiction book called Skyhook ( ISBN 0-515-13712-X ) that I am currently reading about "a top-secret computer program designed to save planes in trouble."

    Amazing that fiction gets closer to reality in increasing shorter time spans isn't it.


  • Re:One word: Bugs (Score:2, Informative)

    by http ( 589131 ) on Saturday January 03, 2004 @09:51PM (#7870190) Homepage Journal
    nit pick mode on:
    since up until Sept 11th noone thought anyone would *willingly* crash the plane.
    jeepers, how young are you?
    the secret service has actively planned for such eventualities since the 1970's,. [] and...oh, anyone remember the Eifel Tower in 1994? anyone? anyone? bueller?
    hold on, 1994, even better than that from 1994, Frank Corder [].
    no one thought. riiiight.
    the rest of your post was quite nice, though.
  • by __aapopf3474 ( 737647 ) on Saturday January 03, 2004 @09:57PM (#7870220)
    [Disclaimer: I work for Professor Edward A. Lee, who came up with the Soft Walls Project in response to 9/11. In general, I'm a very skeptical person and I and other have asked similar questions. In this context, I'm speaking for myself, not for Professor Lee.]

    Good point.

    Small planes crash in to buildings without a huge effect. In 1945, a B-25 crashed in to the Empire State Building [] and did not destroy it.

    In January, 2002, a small plane crashed into a building in Florida [] and did not destroy the building.

    The initial rollout of Soft Walls would be in large new fly by wire planes. Older, large non-fly by wire planes present various problems.

    Small general aviation planes would probably not be required to ever have Soft Walls retrofitted, though perhaps someday new general aviation fly by wire planes would?

    The Soft Walls FAQ (PDF) [] says:

    7. Can Soft Walls be deployed on non-fly-by-wire aircraft?

    In fly-by-wire aircraft, Soft Walls is "just" a software change. However, only a fraction of the fleet today is fly-by-wire. From the New York Times, April 2002 [9]:

    "In November, the F.A.A. counted about 2,300 fly-by-wire planes among Boeing and Airbus models, the two most popular among big jets; another 8,700 planes in those fleets had conventional mechanical systems. Herman A. Rediess, director of the Office of Aviation Research at the F.A.A., said in a paper representing his own views: ''For the near future, no airline will have the financial resources to even modify the F.B.W. aircraft. It's not clear that they would even have sufficient funds to retrofit the non-F.B.W. aircraft.''

    Adding fly-by-wire ability to older planes would be wildly expensive. George K. Muellner, an Air Force veteran and president of Boeing's research and development arm, called the Phantom Works, recalled that the Air Force had taken some of its oldest F-4's and converted them into pilotless drones, for use as target practice. The conversion, he said, cost more than the plane did new."

    Converting older aircraft to fly-by-wire is clearly out of the question. However, there is an alternative, which is to modify the autopilot systems in older aircraft to implement fly-bywire. The effectiveness of this strategy is still an open question (see the next question).
    BTW, the next question is "8. Can Soft Walls be realized as part of the autopilot system?"

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