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Trust computers? Boeing looks at pilotless aircraft

June 14, 2017 Headline News No Comments Email Email

Boeing is preparing to examine pilotless aircraft and will test pilotless technology in a simulator this year.

The news – and the unsettling prospect of pilotless flight – follows a series of highly publicised computer problems and hacks around the world. They include a recent global ransomware attack and graphic reports of a Qantas pilot’s desperate battle with a rogue computer for  control of a passenger aircraft that “went psycho”. See: Years after computer flip-out, Qantas captain fights on

In fact, Boeing has for year been looking at ways of flying aircraft by robot or by remote control.

At a media briefing ahead of next week’s Paris Air Show, Boeing product development vice-president Mike Sinnett, a pilot himself, confirmed to the West  Australian that Boeing would test pilotless flight algorithms in a cockpit simulator in coming months and then use it on a test flight next year.

The US military already uses pilotless aircraft, such as this X47B

The biggest challenge may lie in convincing passengers to fly in a pilotless plane. If driverless cars strike consumer resistance, pilotless planes can expect plenty.

Aircraft can already fly without pilots by remote control, guided from thousands of kilometres away, but they must be equipped with specialised communication, guidance and avionic equipment.

Various types of jet-powered pilotless drones are used by the US to carry out surveillance and missile-strike missions. They can operate over Asia and the Middle East flown by military pilots from bases in the United States. But they are designed to be flown that way.

A system to override pilots in the event of hijack was developed in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack on New York – and Boeing is named on the patent. The system was claimed by its inventors to allow operators on the ground to override the cockpit, in the event of a hijack of a commercial aircraft, and fly a plane remotely.

The patent for that system was filed on 19 February 2003 and the US Patent Office records the assignee as The Boeing Company (Chicago, IL). In law an assignee is a person or entity to whom some right or interest is transferred. The patent number is: 7142971 and the patent can be inspected on this US Patent Office link.

However the so-called Boeing Uninterruptible Autopilot System was never installed, according to Boeing.

A spokesman for the plane-maker confirmed that it did patent a system for remote control of an airliner years ago, but never fitted it to aircraft.

“We’re always doing R&D and while we apply for patents, the technology doesn’t always find its way on to a Boeing platform,” the spokesman said.

Many pilots are understood to have felt pretty uncomfortable about the concept of installing any system that could take over the planes they were flying and fly them from the ground. The feeling was that the risk of such a system falling into the wrong hands, or being hacked into, could make planes more vulnerable rather than less.

Nevertheless, the patent makes interesting reading. One passage in it states:

“For instance, an aircraft may be in communication with one or more remote locations, which may include but is not limited to an airline office, an airport, and one or more governmental agencies, such as a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) office, a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) office, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) office, the office of Homeland Security, a military center, or an anti-terrorist agency office.

“Personnel and/or equipment at the remote location may monitor the aircraft and may be capable of detecting certain events, such as indications from the flight crew or systems onboard the aircraft and/or movements of the aircraft that suggest the security of the aircraft is in jeopardy.

“Thus, one or more automatic and/or manual engagement elements may be located at the remote location, such that once it is determined that the security of the air vehicle is in jeopardy, the automatic flight control system of the air vehicle may be automatically or manually engaged from the remote location by transmitting an activation signal to the processing element.”

Written by Peter Needham

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