Datalink and communications specialist Cubic Defense Systems has applied for a US patent for technology to control commercial aircraft flight systems remotely from the ground during hijacks or emergencies.

San Diego, California-based Cubic produces instrumented air and ground combat-training systems, battle-command training, simulation training and support, avionics, datalinks and communications products, including jam-resistant datalinks for unmanned air vehicles.

The system would allow pilots to relinquish control of their aircraft in certain situations to ground control, allowing authorities to take control of the aircraft via a secure datalink.

According to Cubic, the remote-control device would allow the aircraft's flight systems to be reprogrammed to approach the nearest safe airport, engage the automatic-landing system and land the aircraft.

The system, which would work in conjunction with the autopilot, would comprise a control electronics unit (CEU) on board the aircraft that includes a secure datalink to ground controllers.

The CEU, which will incorporate Cubic's jam-resistant datalink, would engage the autopilot and provide data from the ground controller to direct the aircraft to a safe altitude and towards an airport.

The CEU would also disable the cockpit control of critical systems, including the ability to disable the autopilot, dump fuel or override the aircraft heading.

Only the CEU, including the encrypted datalink and cabling, would be required on the aircraft, although optional equipment could include cockpit and cabin video and audio transmission to the ground and aircraft-status monitoring, according to Max Farrow, Cubic vice-president advanced programmes and engineering. The ground infrastructure would comprise encrypted datalink transceivers and controls.

A prototype is due to be completed within nine months, adds Farrow, to be followed by airborne testing and certification, which could take a year or more. The system would cost $50,000-$200,000 per aircraft, he says.

Cubic has applied for a patent under a fast-track system giving priority to anti-terrorist devices, and is seeking airline and technology development partners. According to Farrow, the primary challenge is operational rather than technical acceptance.

"In addition to US Federal Aviation Administration certification, pilots will have to accept the system, which could be a lengthy process," he says.

Source: Flight International