Remote-controlled passenger jets may not be such a far-fetched idea

This Just In...

October 03, 2001|By DAN RODRICKS

EVERYONE HAS done this at least once since Sept. 11. We've all tried to imagine some way of making the jumbo jets that traverse America's skies terrorist-proof. The unthinkable happened Sept. 11, and that forced us to think of things we've never thought of before.

I convened a one-man, counterterrorism think tank and came up with this: remote-controlled airliners. In the event of an emergency, why not pilot jets from the ground? Even if a suicide hijacker succeeded in taking command of a passenger jet, even if he knew how to fly it, he could be denied his evil glory by an advanced remote-pilot system that would override his attempt to manually fly the plane from the cockpit.

I admit: It sounded like man-on-the-moon stuff. ("We put a man on the moon, we can do anything in this country!") Even as I uttered the idea in the presence of polite and indulgent friends, it sounded weird and far-fetched.

But then two things happened - an expert in remote-pilot technology told me it wasn't weird and far-fetched at all, and the concept showed up in President Bush's proposals for making air travel safer. The president said he would consider investing government money in the research and further development of the technology.

So, though I'm not exactly bullish on the idea, I'm less self-conscious about speculating on it in public.

"Actually, there's a joke about this that's been around since the '80s," says Chuck Hall, associate professor of aerospace engineering at North Carolina State University. "The cockpit of the future will have a pilot and a dog. The pilot will be there to monitor the controls and feed the dog. The dog will be there to bite the pilot if he tries to touch anything."

Already, says Hall, modern passenger jets are equipped with autopilot systems for cruising and landing. Taking that technology another big-daddy step, linking it to a ground-based piloting system through a network of satellites, is not out of the question.

He seemed to agree that such a system might not eliminate the need for a pilot in the cockpit - passengers are likely to want to see a human being at the console for a long time to come - but it might certainly serve as a second line of defense against the kind of hijackers who seized control of four jets Sept. 11. It could also be used to help crews incapacitated by onboard fires or other emergencies. In the future it might become the main navigational system for the world's airlines.

Hall is a specialist in the field of remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs). He might be living the ultimate dream of a model-airplane hobbyist. Hall, his associates and graduate students have used remotely piloted scale models of fighter jets and Stealth-like flying wings to test new designs for the Navy. He's conducted some of his tests with large RPVs at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Southern Maryland.

Remote-controlled unmanned aircraft have applications well beyond scale-model testing. They've been used for surveillance for a number of years. The military has been using unmanned, ground-controlled reconnaissance aircraft on missions over Iraq and Kosovo. Some military experts believe RPVs are the future of tactical aircraft as well, and may one day make manned planes obsolete. Unmanned planes would be smaller, more maneuverable and harder to detect - and if they crash, there's no loss of life.

Hall pointed to a major achievement in the development of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles): April's successful trans-Pacific flight of the Global Hawk.

That's a jet-powered aircraft equivalent in wing size to a Boeing 737. With no human beings aboard, it flew nonstop for 22 hours from Edwards Air Force Base, California, to Edinburgh Air Force Base, South Australia.

Global Hawk is controlled by a programmed, onboard navigational system, but also has satellite communications links. Developed within the past decade by Northrop Grumman Ryan Aeronautical for the Air Force, the Hawk has a 14,000-nautical-mile range and can fly nonstop for up to 36 hours at altitudes of up to 65,000 feet.

That's impressive stuff. Military applications of RPV and UAV technology make sense. But are you ready to buy a ticket and take a seat aboard a jet controlled from the ground or through an onboard computer? It's hard to imagine - like most of the future.

For now, I think I'd be content with my original idea - someone on the ground who can fly a plane by remote control should the onboard pilot become incapacitated.

Satellites would be involved. The industry would have to come up with advanced computer systems that could fly and land a distressed airliner from the ground. Or keep pilots on duty to take control of aircraft in trouble.

And this all starts to sound like a terribly complex and expensive way to solve the problem that reared its evil head Sept. 11.

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