Electronic Design


Engineering For Security
Excellent editorial! \["Let's Engineer Terrorism Out Of The Skies," Oct. 15, p. 24\] I have wondered for years why airplanes are allowed to fly into mountains when it would be fairly simple, with GPS, to prevent them from doing so, or at least warn the pilots in time for evasive action. Even something as simple as my $250 DeLorme 3D Topo software and GPS receiver could provide situational awareness. Surely airplanes, especially the Airbus fly-by-wire planes, could be programmed to avoid certain locations.
Jim Turner
Computer Logging Inc.

Regarding "Let's Engineer Terrorism Out Of The Skies," I have a better suggestion. Let's engineer terrorism out, period. Americans represent only four out of every 100 residents of our tiny planet. We need to give more respect to the needs of the other 96. Specifically with regard to the circulation of Electronic Design, how many readers are engaged in activities that benefit the other 96, and how many cause displeasure? How many are de-livering advances in medicine versus advances in arms?

Rather than using our technology to thwart hijackings, let's use it to provide enough wholesome food and pure water and decent shelter throughout the world. We have im-mense engineering capability in this country, but too much goes into the weapons of war rather than the building blocks of peace and prosperity.

I certainly agree we should "harness sophisticated technology and put it to work to keep us safe." Is there any better way to keep us safe than removing the causes of terrorism? Let's focus our technology on positive long-term solutions, and engineer terrorism out. Period.
Darryl Phillips
AirSport Corp.

In response to your question about whether consumers will pay for Digital Radio Service, I think it will be a matter of offering an appealing format \["Digital Audio Broadcasting: A New Frontier," Sept. 17, p. 50\]. Like Digital Video, I don't think dissatisfaction with the current transmission system will sell subscribers. It's a content question, not a technical question to me.

I have no problem with the audio quality available from standard FM Stereo, but the programming is horrible. I would pay money to hear music in the morning on my way to work. I am completely sick of the three idiots in the morning format that is ubiquitous in this country. Virtually every station has some variant this format; the smaller stations can only afford two idiots in the morning, but it doesn't help. Country stations, top forty, new music, it's the same story. It has gotten to the point that I rarely turn on the radio anymore, and if I do, I channel surf to get as much music as possible, turning the radio off when there is no music to be found.

If a subscription audio service offered DJ free, commercial free, music, I would pay money for it. National news would be acceptable, maybe on an hourly basis.
Bob Harbour

As a consumer, I for one will not pay for broadcast digital audio services. I have seen the destruction of "community area TV with movies" over the years. At first in the early '70's, I hooked up to cable TV. I got a few local channels and a pay service for movies called HBO. It only cost about $5 per month. It was ok.

At some time according to the little brochure they sent around a movie would start. When it was over there was dead air until the next movie came on. I liked that.

In my area today, the cable services are a joke. The minimum service is about $27 for local channels and some basic cable services, all with commercials. The quality is so poor with crossmodulation and leakage or ghosting that it's barely watchable. The so called "premium cable channels" like Discovery, the Learning Channel, and most others started out ok. No commercials and you paid the cable company $10 or so to get them. Now they all have commercials. What's the point? The movie channels are terrible too. I want to see the movie from beginning to end with no cutoffs in the beginning or end for the cable company to try to get you to keep watching or get in a commercial for some other movie or service. Now the end of the movie with credits is destroyed by having an unreadable two page thing with ads on one side and the movie credits on the other side. On top of that they are always showing their little logo in the bottom right of the screen to ruin the movie and take away what I want to seeā€”the movie alone from beginning to end.

So I fear the same with audio. I can't support it with a fee. The commercials will always slip in and the service will be destroyed and they will charge you a fee to get it. If it's broadcast, it must be free with commercials paying the way.
Roger D. Sheppard
Agilent Technologies

Stopping terrorism isn't primarily an engineering problem, and there's a better use for engineers than preventing a re-occurrence of the last terrorist attack. Bin Laden has been described as a venture capitalist for terrorists, so let's look at terrorism from the view of a venture capitalist, not an engineer.

Nine-eleven will cost the U.S. in dollars about 150,000 times what it cost Bin Laden. It also cost the U.S. in lives about 300 times what it cost him. Bin Laden's problem is that he doesn't gain what we lose. To win, he has to kill us or bankrupt us. He doesn't have the assets to do either one, and he certainly knew this. His plan for success probably assumed that a successful attack would make it a lot easier to raise money and recruit people for future attacks, and would inspire more efficient ideas from others.

He had to know that we would improve airline security after the attack, although it probably didn't occur to him that the greatest improvement to security would be that other passengers would disable or kill future hijackers.

From the venture capitalist viewpoint, using airplanes as bombs was a method that was most cost-effective to do once, using several airplanes at once. The next attack would require a different approach that wouldn't be affected by improvements in security after the first attack. Anthrax clearly met those requirements.

The anthrax attack hasn't been very effective, probably due to the lack of expert knowledge. There has been enough talk about the possible use of Anthrax in bacteriological warfare to have made it seem a lot more effective than it turned out to be.

We don't have unlimited funds to spend on security, and it's very difficult in our society to prevent terrorists from knowing what we're buying with the money we spend on security. As long as we are dealing with a venture capitalist who will look at cost effectiveness (in terms of both money and lives) we must do just that. So where would I spend money to improve security?

  1. Give a significant amount of money to the families of the men who prevented the fourth plane from reaching its target. Terrorists have made it a practice in the past to take care of the survivors of terrorists killed in action. We need to do the same for heroes, or their survivors.
  2. Ask the designers of the El Al security system, which the press has told Americans is the best airline security system in the world, to design a system for the U.S. This would be more expensive than necessary for making sure that terrorists select a different method, but it's hard to feel safe when we're told that we can't afford as good a system as El Al uses, nor even as good as many other countries use, and should be satisfied with "good enough."
  3. Let the CIA find out who has financed Bin Laden, and make sure that they soon have fatal accidents. Once Bin Laden realizes what's happening, it might be helpful to create a Web site listing known contributors to Bin Laden and the date that each died.
  4. Stop charging Americans for passports and require all citizens to obtain and carry passports.
  5. Improve border security, and provide financial assistance to Canada and Mexico to also improve their security.
  6. Fund an ongoing effort to identify potential terrorist targets and/or attack methods that could cause substantial losses, and identify cost-effective ways of improving security. The most effective way is probably to offer rewards to members of the public for identifying unrecognized targets or methods.
  7. Ask congress for a declaration of war, as provided for in our constitution. This would make it possible to implement temporary security measures without the danger of congress aiding the goals of the terrorists by destroying our liberty in the name of security. It would also make it clear that terrorists could no longer be defended by armies of lawyers.

Note that none of the above requires any engineering work. The problem with engineering solutions is that they result in predictable security systems. Effective security depends on good, but unpredictable, judgement. The terrorists were easily able to find out what kind of weapons could reliably get through airport security ahead of time. Without this they couldn't have hijacked four planes within a short time span. El Al doesn't rely on engineering solutions, other than for the cockpit door system. Rather than depend primarily on engineering to detect weapons, it depends primarily on psychology to detect terrorists.

While I don't think defending against terrorism needs a lot of engineering work, good engineers can do a lot. For example, good engineers identify strengths and weaknesses in systems and find ways to eliminate the weaknesses in a cost-effective manner. They should thus be able to identify our vulnerabilities well before the terrorists identify them.
Wayne Albin

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.