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Tackling hijacking with technology

By Dana Rosenblatt for CNN
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(CNN) -- Although this week's hijacking of a Turkish passenger jet ended peacefully, the incident did little for the nerves of air travelers, already shaken by August's alleged terror plot to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners mid-flight.

But a European Union initiative to develop on-board security technology could soon provide planes, pilots and passengers with an extra line of defense.

Developers involved in the 38-million euro ($46 million) project known as SAFEE -- Security of Aircraft in the Future European Environment -- claim the system would render aircraft impenetrable to hijack or terrorist attack.

Backed by a consortium of 31 companies, including aeronautical industry giants Airbus and BAE Systems, SAFEE has been in development for four years.

It uses sensors, cameras, microphones, and biometric devices -- capable of detecting biological and chemical agents through the plane's ventilation system -- to monitor passengers' behavior, and guide planes in distress to safety via "autopilot."

On Tuesday, a Turkish Airlines flight from Albania to Istanbul with 113 people aboard was hijacked by an unarmed man.

Although he surrendered and all passengers were released unharmed, the incident highlighted aircraft vulnerability, even amid heightened ground security.

Omer Laviv of Athena GS3 Security Implementations Ltd., an Israeli company involved in developing SAFEE, said the incident would have been prevented had the aircraft involved had the system in place.

"The hijacker went on the plane without a weapon; without any tools, and he was still able to hijack it even with all the major security," Laviv told CNN.

"You cannot make a security system based only on technology, you have to focus on [the behavior of] people. The SAFEE system would have alerted the crew to the issue before the hijacker was able to enter the cockpit."

CEO Reuven Paz said SAFEE would increasingly become something that passengers expected to be in place when they flew.

"You'll be more conscious of it because terrorism is here to stay," Paz told CNN.

Body language

Athena GS3 is working with SAFEE to develop an interface which uses biometrics. This would include a voice recognition system to detect behavioral and physiological "red flags" such as visible stress and body language which would alert the flight crew if a passenger may be preparing for a terrorist action.

Psychologists who've studied the behavioral patterns of terrorists say there are tell tale signs a person gives off before they are about to commit a terrorist act, even emitting a certain odour from their body.

SAFEE predicts their detection system will be sensitive enough to pick up that scent and in turn alert the flight crew.

Although the design of the interface is still in development, Athena GS3 predicts a computer module will analyze data from each passenger's seat, alerting the flight crew when a possible threat is detected.

The system would also be able to determine the identity of the pilot and the flight crew, using fingerprints and other biometric techniques.

In the event that someone other than the pilot tried to fly the plane, the system would lock into a "safe mode" and the plane would fly itself to a controlled zone with a hazard avoidance system that would navigate around any potential targets on the ground, such as mountain peaks, conference centers, tall buildings or nuclear reactors.

The program still has rough edges that need ironing out -- such as winning over passengers unhappy at the idea of being watched by an invisible Big Brother.

SAFEE program coordinator Daniel Gaultier says the company is actively working to address civil liberties concerns.

"Accepting this kind of breach of liberty, to be watched... it's not pleasant," said Gaultier. "But as a result you will feel more safe and secure."

He said each flight would have a different database, a black box of sorts, containing information about passengers that would be erased at the end of the flight -- one way of protecting a passengers' privacy.

Developers of SAFEE say the system will be operational anytime between 2008 and 2010 and predict it will revolutionize flight security.

"Everybody thinks checking your shoes are enough security. But tomorrow we'll be more knowledgeable," said Paz.

A Turkish airliner was hijacked this week when an unarmed man stormed the cockpit.



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