Last month's plane hijackings and horrible carnage and destruction in New York City and Washington, D.C., drove home both the blessings and curses of improving technology. To the victims and their families and friends we can only offer our prayers and sympathy, and the hope that nothing like that will ever happen again.
There have been many reports regarding the relative ease the hijackers seemingly had in getting through airport security and in piloting the planes once they took over the cockpits. The weapons they used were simple—boxcutters and other small items that passed airport security and apparently were not illegal to bring on board.
To pilot the planes, several of the hijackers attended pilot training sessions in the U.S. and abroad, although ostensibly none had logged any actual hours on a commercial jet. The ad-vanced electronic systems used to control the planes makes the pilot's task easier, but in these horrific cases, it also aided the minimally trained hijackers to direct the planes to their targets.
The technology used to scan personal effects at airports ranges from simple metal detectors that passengers walk through to electronic sniffers to detect dangerous chemicals to sophisticated X-ray systems that scan luggage. Although these systems do a good job, they depend on people to observe and react to the results. A few moments of distraction or inattentiveness and potential weapons can make their way onto the plane. Can we do better? Probably. Image recognition and sophisticated sensors may help to pinpoint more potentially dangerous items and uncover future threats to our safety.
However, aside from some strengthening of the bulkhead between the passenger cabin and the cockpit, few security measures are included in today's passenger planes. Perhaps this is where we can apply our engineering expertise to craft various features that provide extended safety measures and foil all hijackers. Such measures could lock-in predetermined flight paths, initiate various lock-out functions, or automatically send out distress messages.
To create such capabilities is within the range of current technologies—it mostly has become a matter of economics and perhaps complacency. We should be able to bring to bear technologies such as speaker identification, speech recognition, fingerprint ID, or other biometric schemes to prevent unauthorized access to the controls. There are some issues with these methods, though, since most of them aren't considered 100% reliable. There is some concern that the true pilot could also be locked out, but redundant systems could eliminate that concern.
How far should we go to ensure safety in the skies? The answer, of course, is whatever it takes. But there's another choice to make. Do we continue to use brute-force techniques like banning even plastic knives, or do we harness sophisticated technology and put it to work keeping us safe?