RoboLander     - 
Addressing the Doubts and FAQ's 
of a Dubious Industry

When you look at the degree of dependency upon automation in the latter Airbuses, the RoboLander system is no quantum leap at all. In fact you might say that it was simply bypassed as a sop to human sensibilities and sensitivities (and because prior to 11 Sep 01 there was no evident need for such a system).

I know that Bernard Ziegler would agree. After all, it was first trialled (in part) on a GPS system in 1994 (click this link )

Hereunder will be reproduced (in part) some of the more interesting and informed queries, comments, quotes and FAQ's received about the RoboLander concept -

on an ongoing (updated) basis.

The Final Bastion

Quote: (from this article)

"Fortifying ground security is the best way to stop terrorists from hijacking jetliners, said ..."

But once you're boarding 500 odd on an Airbus A380, the chances are that 4 or 5 bad guys just might get through, and all they need, to get into the cockpit, is some hermetically-sealed plastic explosive secreted on their person. "Sleepers", by their very nature intend to meld in and will meet just about any type of airport security background check in future...

So how do you stop them from then taking control of an aircraft and using it as a weapon?     (revised 03 Oct 01)

Air Canada boss Robert Milton wants Ottawa to defray anti-terrorism costs MONTREAL (CP)

Canada's airline industry needs federal money _

perhaps $4 billion _ to stay airborne during a new era of fear in the skies, Air Canada's chief executive said Tuesday.

Robert Milton's warning came as North American airlines faced ...

Terror-Airline Doors-Boeing Broadcast News, 09/19/2001, 143 words VANCOUVER -- There may be a few holes in the latest Transport Canada rule to lock all cockpit doors on passenger planes. A Boeing spokesperson says those doors are meant to be breached.

U.S. transportation secretary meets with leaders of aviation industry The Canadian Press, 09/18/2001, 552 words WASHINGTON (AP) _ Leaders of the major U.S. airlines, hit hard by financial problems and security concerns, sought assurances Tuesday in a White House meeting with Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who said the administration was preparing a ...

U.S. senators draft legislation to federalize airport security The Canadian Press, 09/18/2001, 395 words WASHINGTON (AP) _ Senators are drafting a multibillion-dollar plan to increase the number of armed guards in airports and on airplanes, secure cockpits with bullet-proof doors and employ new technology to screen for potential terrorists. The bill would ...

Beef up airport security to stop terrorists, air safety investigators say The Canadian Press, 09/18/2001, 670 words VICTORIA (CP) _ The front line for the battle against terrorist hijackers must start at every airport's security gate, air safety investigators said Tuesday. Fortifying ground security is the best way to stop terrorists from hijacking jetliners, said ...

A:  Question:  "Terrorists could use putty to block cabin surveillance camera lenses (although even a covert attempt to do so would indicate potential trouble)".

Answer: Ref the bit in blue. Once you black out a surveillance camera, you're just not sure if it's bust or what (once the light is cut off to it, it just goes black). Small point perhaps - but one minute you've got the picture, the next you don't - and the act of obscuring it is likely to happen sight unseen.

The hair-splitting that is emerging in any professional pilot's consideration of the RoboLander concept is the essential difference between automation and autonomy. They are two different birds, although of the same feather. One misunderstanding that I have been trying to correct is that of the assumed irrevocability of ceding (or losing) autonomous control.

B:  Question: (in part)

For instance" Even so, the required comms links and control-transfer decision logic only hint at the potential failure modes." 

Answer:  The answer to this of course is simply that if the aircraft loses its link with the controlling ground-station there would be a reversionary mode (i.e. there will and must always be one entity in 100% valid control, be it ground or air - but never a case of nil control - so call it a fail-safe link if you like). How does a fail-safe link work? Think of it as a latching relay that will only allow the Ground station to retain control whilst the sat-based ground-control uplink is both valid and in "trapping" mode. These fail-safe (aka "fail-operable) aspects need to be spelt out in order to help dispel the bogey-man aspect of the RoboLander concept being viewed as ALL OR NOTHING AT ALL (which it IS NOT).


C:  Question (in part) "This complicated system would by design have the ability to wrest control of the aircraft from the pilot irretrievably, since the design goal would be to not allow anyone in the cockpit to be able to regain control. "  

Answer: Yes irretrievably, but NOT irrevocably (there is a difference).

In other words, if the ground station wished, for good reason, they could relinquish control back to the pilot. For what reason you ask? The pilot may state that the hijackers have been overpowered, that it was really only an air-rage incident and that he will now be inserting his personal code (after earlier having hit the BRB (big red button), albeit prematurely). It is a most difficult concept to overall get your mind around - isn't it? Might be too complex a concept perhaps? I doubt very much that the technical challenges are anywhere as complex as you portray them. After all the Global Hawk is commanded to carry out very complex surveillance functions and whilst in its mission, thousands of miles away, it can be totally reprogrammed and, in future, even mid-air refuelled.

D: Question: So why cannot hijackers just take the fire-axe and destroy wiring bundles and CB's etc and cause the aircraft to crash anyway?

In the future, once wiring bundles are remoted and inaccessible and circuit-breakers are physically inside the code-locked E&E bay, (being replaced in the cockpit by status lights) then would-be hijackers should be unable to "down" the aircraft. However the RoboLander system is presently designed only to stop normal hijackings and suicide terrorists who might otherwise repeat their 11 Sep cruise-missile routine with much greater loss of life. Unless systems were physically protected from their predations, hijackers operating with impunity could always "down" an aircraft. This may not (hopefully) be the case in future designs .

E. I watched an ex NTSB Board member interview on TV tonight and had some wifely queries:
After he'd said his piece she asked me (from the point of view of an ex-Alitalia air hostess):

"What in Hell has that to do with what happened on 11 Sep? Why would stopping the terrorists from pulling CVR and DFDR CB's or switching off the transponder have stopped them carrying out a mass murder-suicide attack?"
All I could say was: " Well maybe an operating transponder would have given a bit more advance notice that the aircraft was diverting from its flight-planned route, and so ATC could have alerted ready-alert fighters to intercept."
"But what if they'd instead squawked 7600 (lost comms) or 7700 (emergency) code and were ostensibly having an emergency or lost communications and were diverting to JFK?"
"Well I guess under current rules they'd be shot down anyway. I guess the aftermath would then give cause for a review of the shoot-down policy - if it wasn't a hijack."
"Bit late then" she says. "Particularly if it was a foreign airliner and not a US one".
"Well I think that on 11 Sep the only reason the USAF F-16's were scrambled was because one of the hijacked pilots surreptitiously kept his transmit button pressed and ATC heard the long-range intercom of the hijacker's Arabic-accented demands."
"I see, so the transponder code being present or not, that made no difference at all then."
"Guess so, but it might well do so in future under the new rules."

F. Question: Which brings up the point about the 20 minutes specified in the RoboLander's passivity periodicity. Why 20 minutes?

Well you'd have to be mighty unlucky for a terrorist take-over to happen with exactly 20 minutes to go (unless he was a new-hire F/O who had just watched you punch it in or heard the warbler tone). So in the majority of cases the clock would be running with somewhat less than 20 minutes to go and then you'd hopefully be in excess of that flight-time from any high-value mass murder type targets. 20 minutes equals about 120 - 150 nms in terms of flying distance so a potential hijacker would have the additional task of determining inflight just where they were before making his move. And that move would have to be fast enough to stop the captain from lifting the guard and using his activator button (on the side-console down by his left thigh). That may be the case if he were out of his seat (say). So the combination of the captain being out of his seat and having the whole 20 minutes to run before the failure to insert and radiate the passivator code causing a RoboLander take-over? ...not very likely at all. In the not too distant future the Free Flight (non-airways) capabilities that are under development will also confound the terrorist's abilities to know where they are in respect of any number of main [or contingency] ground targets. Of course that also now means a judicious killing of the cabin screen displays of enroute position.

G. Question: Could a copilot's seat also have an activator button?

No reason why not. It would cover the case of the captain being back aft for any reason. That occasion would increase the chances of an opportunistic takeover attempt. An F/O's button for the right-hand seat would also help cover the case where the captain inserts his code just prior to going down back (because as soon as he was seen in the cabin by the passengers, they'd know that the clock likely had just under 20 minutes to run).

H. Question: Could the captain carry a remote activator with him while he's out of his seat?

No reason why not, but probably not one with a passivator capability built-in. If he's on crew-rest, the cruise-captain may have to be entrusted with the captain's code (or perhaps both individual's codes could work off the electronic data-base for that long-range flight).

I. Question: What's to stop a new-hire (terrorist) copilot from becoming aware of his Captain's RoboCode?

That panel would be down adjacent to the captain's left thigh and out of sight. At the sound of the warbler (which also btw indicates that the satellite link is still "up"), the captain simply inserts the code digit-by-digit (four digits), lifts a flap and sees (on an LED display) that it's correct and only then punches it out. If he fails to punch it out of the aircraft, the LED display fades out (after 10 seconds persistence only), the warbler sounds (quietly at first) - and he would then have to re-insert his code and complete the procedure.

J. Question: Is a GPS-based autolanding system available?

Raytheon and Air Force Demonstrate Civil-Military Interoperability for GPS-Based Precision Auto-Landing System.

MARLBOROUGH, Mass., Oct. 1 /PRNewswire/ --

A government-industry team accomplished the first precision approach by a civil aircraft using a military Global Positioning System (GPS) landing system Aug. 25 at Holloman AFB, N.M., Raytheon Company (NYSE: RTN) announced today. A FedEx Express 727-200 Aircraft equipped with a Rockwell-Collins GNLU-930 Multi-Mode Receiver landed using a Raytheon-developed military ground station. Raytheon designed and developed the differential GPS ground station under an Air Force contract for the Joint Precision Approach and Landings System (JPALS) program. The JPALS system is being developed to meet the Defense Department's need for an anti-jam, secure, all weather Category II/III aircraft landing system that will be fully interoperable with planned civil systems utilizing the same technology. Raytheon and the U.S. Air Force have been conducting extensive flight testing for JPALS at Holloman over the last three months. The FedEx Express 727-200 aircraft at Holloman successfully conducted a total of sixteen Category I approaches. After completing a number of pilot flown approaches for reference the aircraft conducted six full autolands using the JPALS ground station. "The consistency of the approaches allowed us to proceed to actual autolandings with very little delay," said Steve Kuhar, Senior Technical Advisor Flight Department for FedEx Express. The aircraft was guided by differential GPS corrections, integrity information, and precision approach path points transmitted from the Raytheon developed JPALS ground station. Although the approaches were restricted to Category I, accuracies sufficient to meet Cat II/III requirements were observed. Raytheon is the world leader in designing and building satellite-based navigation and landing solutions for civil and military applications. In addition to developing JPALS for the Department of Defense, Raytheon is also developing both the Local Area Augmentation System (LAAS) and the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) for the Federal Aviation Administration. The JPALS and LAAS will provide an interoperable landing capability for military and civil applications. "Raytheon is committed to developing and deploying satellite based navigation and landing systems for the military and the flying public," said Bob Eckel, Raytheon vice president for Air Traffic Management. "We understand the importance of this technology and are proud to be a part of the success achieved this summer during JPALS testing at Holloman." With headquarters in Lexington, Mass., Raytheon Company is a global technology leader in defense, government and commercial electronics, and business and special mission aircraft.