How We Could Have Turned Flight 370 Into a Giant Drone—and Saved It

Mar 19, 2014 at 2:41 PM ET

Back in 2006, Boeing received a patent for an autopilot system that would enable an official on the ground to take over the plane’s navigation systems. The idea was this: If a hijacker tried to take control of the plane—or a pilot went AWOL—a third party could activate software within the plane’s systems and guide it home, landing it safely, kind of like a giant, remote-controlled drone filled with people.

“After it has been activated, the aircraft will be capable of remote digital control from the ground, enabling operators to fly it like a sophisticated model plane, maneuvering it vertically and laterally,” wrote one newspaper at the time. 

It was among a flurry of post-9/11 patents, as aviation security experts and technologists began collaborating on new tools to fight plane terrorism. Mostly, they considered building software that would enable someone from outside the plane to seize control of the cockpit’s functions and land the plane safely. The plan, according to news reports at the time, was to begin rolling out the new system in the next three years.

But nothing ever really happened with any of these ideas.

According to a Boeing representative, who spoke off the record, the technology was never rolled out—even if conspiracy theorists believe otherwise. The Boeing representative did not offer an explanation, but it’s likely that the plan couldn’t get FAA approval or pass muster with pilots’ associations.

After all, if a person sitting in air-traffic control could digitally commandeer a plane from the ground, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to believe a hacker could do the same.  Plus, the decision to drone-ify all airplanes would likely carry too much political baggage to really gain much support.

Instead, the focus of air security was pushed toward the TSA, which beefed up its own security protocols by investing heavily in body scanners—regardless of whether or not they actually work.  

As investigators continue their search for the missing Malaysian jet—which has officially been ruled a hijacking—it’s worth asking: Could technology have prevented it, even if the hijacking was carried out by one of the pilots?

There have been other patents for anti-hijacking measures, none of which have ever actually been installed in planes. One patent, written just two months after 9/11, describes a process by which a plane switches to autopilot if hijackers storm the cockpit. The difference from the patent above is that in this system, a pilot must manually flip the switch himself.

Another, filed in 2004, explains how, in the event of a hijacking, a separate aircraft or satellite could be dispatched to some distance behind the hijacked plane, take over its flying systems and land the plane safely.

This patent, filed in 2004, describes how an autopilot mechanism would be triggered simply by entering a no-fly zone, which would prevent even a suicidal pilot from crashing the plane. The patent describes “a system and method for operating an aircraft such that any hostile persons taking over the cockpit, for instance, terrorists or a disgruntled pilot, cannot control the flight path of the aircraft to enter restricted airspace, such as ‘no fly’ zones.”

Another patent proposes a “panic button” to be pressed by a pilot in the event of a hijacking, which would revert the plane’s systems to an autopilot.

Others inventors have gotten more creative—if not somewhat ridiculous. One patent, filed in 2001 by Birinder R. Boveja and Angely Widhany, proposes a system that might douse a hijacker with chemical sprays, or even shoot them with lasers.

The patent, they write, proposes a “method of countering terrorism or hostile activity in an airplane by using a multitude of built-in systems within the aircraft,” which includes “chemical sprays, laser guns, and pre-programmed sound alarm systems.”

The authors continue:

The aerosol chemicals range from benign fogging agents to non-lethal incapacitating agents from the categories of inhalants, general anesthetics and irritants. Any of the systems can be used singly or in any combination. These systems can be activated manually from the control panel in the cockpit, or via a remote wireless activation system by the flight crew from anywhere within the plane. Such activation being password and code protected.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this technology isn’t currently active in any airplane. But maybe anti-hijacking software needs to be revisited.