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Remote piloting

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10/02/2001 - Updated 12:18 PM ET
Remote piloting: Solution or disaster-in-the-making?

BOSTON (AP) There's little doubt that landing a plane from the ground technology that could prevent hijackers turning a commercial jet into a weapon could soon be feasible. Whether it's a good idea or not is another question. Raytheon is one of several companies looking to use new satellite technology that could someday allow jets to be landed by people on the ground, in much the same way that hobbyists bring in their model airplanes by remote control. The company announced Monday that its technology had guided a Federal Express 727 to a safe landing on a New Mexico Air Force base in August all without the need of a pilot. Raytheon says the technology, primarily designed to help navigation, could be useful in a remote landing system.

Federal agencies and private companies have been exploring such technologies as a way to make air travel more secure after the Sept. 11 terrorist hijackings. But industry watchers fear it might actually make the skies less safe.

"There's some pretty overt national security concerns I would think," said John Carr, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "The devil is in the details. Is this something we would put on all aircraft? Because I'm sure you can imagine if I can control all aircraft you would create a new target."

But according to James Coyne, president of the National Air Transportation Association, the technology could be a way to avert disasters like those in the terrorist attacks or even prevent others like the 1996 Valujet crash in Florida and the 1998 SwissAir crash where crews were apparently stymied by fire.

"Perhaps in both of those cases, if people on the ground could have been made aware of the problems, those planes could have been brought back to safety," said Coyne, who thinks remote control could be a good idea.

Military and civilian jets have been landing on autopilot for years, but the Raytheon test used technology that provides the extremely precise navigational instructions that would be required for remote control from a secure location.

Unmanned, ground controlled reconnaissance aircraft have been used by the military for missions over Iraq and Kosovo. The manufacturer for some of those aircraft Thomas Cassidy, president of the Calif.-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems has written Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta suggesting the system for possible commercial uses.

"It's a reliable system," Cassidy said in an interview Monday. "As a last resort, it's better than flying into the side of something you don't want to fly into."

Boeing spokesman John Dern said the company is waiting to hear from task forces assembled by Mineta before trying to integrate such technology into its commercial airliners.

"Translating that into the commercial world and certifying such a system would pose big challenges," he said. "For safety and reliability and redundancy, we'd certainly want to be sure that anything we'd do enhances safety."


Copyright 2001 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Remote piloting
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