Safety: Terrorists on Camera

By David Evans | August 1, 2004
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Message to terrorists: Try to hijack an airplane, and you’ll be on "candid camera."

Video imagery of events in the cockpit or cabin could be transmitted to the ground using the existing sky phone systems installed on many airliners, according to developers of the technology.

"We can download closed-circuit television [CCTV] video with a cell phone’s worth of capability," declares Leonard Gollobin, president and chief executive officer of Fairfax, Va.-based Presearch Inc. The company provides such security technology to ground customers (e.g., banks, nuclear power plants), and in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks began development of the same capability for airliners.

The system was flight tested earlier this year. Two days of airborne trials demonstrated that the technology can provide high-resolution pictures of events in the air to a ground station.

Dubbed the AirPICS remote in-flight security system, the setup could be deployed now to enhance aviation security, Gollobin asserts. He points out that U.S. military jets are being scrambled to intercept aircraft at an average rate of once a day. Interceptor pilots may be authorized to shoot down an airliner if it appears to pose a terrorist threat. Presently, interceptor pilots have a poor view into the cockpit, but a cockpit-mounted CCTV camera, under the AirPICS concept, could provide an up-close picture to ground controllers of cockpit activity. As such, the system can remove the ambiguity in an emergency situation.

The resolution is sufficient for "facial recognition and to confirm the identity of the pilots," Gollobin says. "Any radio transmission coming off the airplane in a terrorist situation is suspect."

Other than cell phone messages from terrified flight attendants and passengers, relatively little is known about what exactly occurred aboard the four airplanes hijacked on 9/11.

The zeitgeist for downloadable video may be right:

The Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001, passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, called for the deployment of video monitors "to alert pilots in the flight deck to activity in the cabin," since the pilots are now locked in the cockpit in front of hardened doors. Transmitting cabin or cockpit video to the ground takes the video concept to the next step.

Many airlines already are deploying CCTV to provide the air crew with, at least, a view behind the cockpit door (see story on page 34).

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has recommended cockpit video as a needed advance in recorder technology for purposes of accident investigations.

The security and safety needs intersect. Gollobin says some 2,500 U.S. airliners are equipped with seatback sky phones, so the air-to-ground link for transmitting video already exists. The existing ground infrastructure for the sky phones also can be used, receiving the video and forwarding the imagery to airline and government operations centers in the event of an emergency.

The AirPICS system could be installed for about $40,000 per aircraft, according to Presearch. And the U.S. government could be enjoined to pay the cost. After all, the government ordered the installation of hardened cockpit doors and reimbursed the airlines some $300 million for this effort. The video system would relay information to the ground of activity on the cabin side of the locked cockpit door. And, heaven forbid, should terrorists penetrate the cockpit, the system would provide imagery of events on the flight deck.

The total cost to equip some 4,000 airliners would be about half that of the hardened door project. Depending upon the number of cameras, the installed weight would be about 30 to 50 pounds (13.6 to 22.7 kg). For an aircraft with an installed sky phone system and related antenna, AirPICS could be fitted in a few hours, Presearch maintains.

Unobtrusive, lightweight cameras would be placed to cover the cabin and cockpit. Coverage of belly holds, other inaccessible spaces, and even of the exterior of the aircraft, are optional. Cameras can switch between different modes (e.g., daylight visual, infrared) depending upon lighting conditions. Up to 16 cameras can be installed per transmitter.

Video imagery can be stored on the flight data recorder (FDR) in highly compressed form, using the same air-to-ground transmission technology. Live pictures are transmitted through a data port connection to the airplane’s existing sky phone system.

The imagery is encrypted before transmission to the ground and only transmitted during an emergency; it does not flood ground stations with routine data.

The pilot activates transmission. If the pilot is incapacitated, or ground operators perceive suspicious activity–such as an airplane off-course, not responding to radio queries and with its transponder broadcasting the hijacked code–the video downlink can be activated from the ground.

The recorder/transmitter continuously monitors all onboard cameras, starting before takeoff. A number of video frames are kept in "active" (or pre-alarm) storage (several minutes’ worth), and all frames are preserved in permanent storage (several hours’ worth). The pre-alarm storage allows officials on the ground to observe what happened in the moments before an emergency.

At the ground station, the first video is displayed automatically within 30 seconds, and images from as many as 16 cameras can be shown simultaneously within 60 seconds.

If the onboard sky phone system is used, images would be refreshed every second. The imagery can include audio.

To exploit the existing capability of installed air phone systems, the AirPICS concept is independent of available bandwidth. "We pick the desired resolution and adjust the frame rate," explains Ronald McKenzie, a Presearch senior vice president who has been involved in the technology’s development and testing.

A dedicated downlink would provide faster connectivity and refresh rates. What Gollobin and McKenzie emphasize is that a high-resolution, all-light-conditions capability exists today to transmit video from an airliner to the ground during an emergency situation.

In fact, Presearch isn’t the only company jumping onto the video transmission bandwagon. Boeing’s "Connexion" concept envisions video transmitted from the aircraft "to better manage an onboard event," according to the promotional literature. Love the euphemisms.

For deterrence, terrorists will have to consider that, unlike on 9/11, cameras will outnumber them. They might disable a few, but the imagery of their infamy will get through.

Downlink System, At a Glance


  • On-demand transmission of secure, high quality video;
  • Use of existing aircraft communications channels and existing off-the-shelf security equipment; and
  • Unique "pre-alarm" recall feature for the instant transmission of video from the time just before alarm.
  • Payoffs

  • Improved situational awareness in the air:
    • Cargo hold, cabin, cockpit,
    • Aircraft to multiple ground monitor sites, and
    • For air defense aircraft;
  • Deterrence (i.e., cockpit door monitoring);
  • Aviation safety;
  • Evidentiary and reconstruction information (e.g., everything from accidents to passenger medical emergencies to cases of "air rage");
  • Protection of critical infrastructure (i.e., ground targets not struck by hijackers);
  • Increased passenger confidence; and
  • Recorded imagery of an accident not dependent on the survivability of the flight data recorder.
  • Source: Presearch

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