Aerospace: A Safer Airplane?

George W. Bush might have one of his post-9/11 wishes granted. Shortly after the 2001 attacks, the U.S. president said he'd like to see a plane that could be controlled from the ground in the event of a hijacking. In the meantime, a consortium including Airbus, BAE, Sagem Défense Sécurité and the European Commission, drawing on aviation expertise from 12 countries, have built a control system for a plane that can steer itself away from tall buildings, detect onboard explosives and identify suspicious behavior. The plane, which has been undergoing simulator tests for several weeks, is a product of the Security of Aircraft in the Future European Environment (SAFEE) project, a four-year, €35.8 million venture--of which €19.4 million has come from the European Union--to develop a secure plane by 2008.

The project is already under attack from some security experts, who say that even if the plane hits runways by 2012 on schedule, it's unlikely to have much of an impact on security. The first problem is that many of the technologies being used in the plane are not particularly reliable. Critics say the automated collision avoidance systems that would potentially take over for incapacitated pilots are not up to the complex task of flying a plane, let alone landing one. (SAFEE officials disagree, though they admit that landings are out of reach.) The plane will also use video and audio sensors to flag irregular activity inside the cabin. But the plane's crew would have to sort through false positives--distinguishing a restless sleeper from someone with more sinister plans. "As far as the technologies are concerned, there's nothing new here," says Chris Yates, an analyst at Jane's Airport Review in London.

The plane's "electronic nose," which sniffs passengers for trace explosives, is one of its more proven technologies. The system uses a laser beam to analyze trace gases, and sounds an alarm if it detects chemicals given off by explosives. It takes just seconds and is 30 times more accurate than dogs. Some security analysts believe that the money would be better spent on deploying such systems at checkpoints to scan passengers before they enter the plane. On the other hand, checkpoint screening is notoriously expensive, especially if airports are to keep up with the wide range of threats that terrorists have at their disposal. When it comes to making the skies safe, there's no silver shield.

If you think global warming is bad now, imagine where we'd be if it weren't for methane-munching bacteria. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Bremen, Germany, writing in the journal Nature last week, have found three different types of bacteria that eat methane from mud volcanoes at the bottom of the Barents Sea. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas then carbon dioxide--and there's 10,000 times more of it in the oceans than in the air.