Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Navigation - just how safe is it?

Most of my posts have been aviation related; firstly because I take an interest in aviation technologies; and secondly because it is a mode of transportation that we take for granted in terms of its technological vulnerability. The systems used for navigation by modern aircraft are usually hooked up to a GPS system and aircraft these days do not rely on visual flight as much as pilots and their planes did say 50 years ago when the best visual aid was the night sky. A few years ago on an Air New Zealand ATR-72 flight I was surprised to be invited into the cockpit and was even more surprised to learn from the pilot that the plane was flying itself entirely based on space-based satellite Global Positioning Systems. The ATR is a modern French-built turboprop with a somewhat shaky safety record for being over-sophisticated and allowing too little human input, so much so that back in 1993 when one crashed the on-board computer would not allow the pilots to try and prevent the disaster. So I sat there wondering what would happen if some super-intelligent person or persons hacked into the GPS satellite and deliberately steered our plane off-course, indeed into a pre-programmed target. Obviously this person would have to be extremely competent but it makes you wonder after 9/11 and subsequent threats and actions made by terrorists just how vulnerable some of our everyday technological systems that we take for granted really are. How complacent can we be in the knowledge that some satellite in space is steering our plane to its destinations…or somewhere else. As humans rely more on technology and less on our own calculations and ‘gut’ feelings, it is reasonable to assume that somewhere along the lines the fatal error will be made that sends a plane to places unknown. There are of course many back-up systems on-board which don’t allow technology to mess up too badly but then again how reliable is on-board technology? Very often as in the case of the ATR crash, it prevents a human input and leads to errors being made. Many aircraft today can land themselves at airports and guide pilots onto the approach path using what is known as a CAT III approach, something that planes can lock onto and fly the approach for themselves. This system so far has proved infallible however with new-generation software being created by people sitting at home with nothing better to do (and a sophisticated computer) the world is effectively a terrorist or hacker’s oyster to screw up the safe air systems that the public and aircrew take for granted (older aircraft used to use waypoints which were fictional navigational aides constructed by the aircrew). In addition to that though there is the other aspect that technology is running our lives too much and not allowing for that human touch. So far most air crashes are caused by human error but some of those have had a fatal chain of events caused by computers. So our reliance on technology may be not only impairing our own logical thought processes but also opening up our lives and workplaces to a cyber-age network of computer-happy criminals which if they don’t already exist, are sure to eventuate within the next few years as computers and their users become increasingly hooked into technology. An article can be found here http://www.schneier.com/crypto-gram-0205.html detailing the fragility of technology securities with a mention of aviation as well.


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