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Is it possible to convert a commercial airplane into a drone, such that if a pilot fails to respond to ATC it can be remotely piloted?

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    $\begingroup$ Can a drone be hijacked and made to crash? $\endgroup$ – davidsleeps Mar 27 '15 at 0:23
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    $\begingroup$ An unoverridable remote control would only turn the problem from dealing with insane pilot to insane ATC. An overridable remote control on the other hand, would do nothing in case of deliberate pilot action. $\endgroup$ – Lie Ryan Mar 27 '15 at 0:49
  • $\begingroup$ possible duplicate of On modern commercial airliners, how much of the flight could be fully taken care of by the auto pilot? $\endgroup$ – kevin Mar 27 '15 at 2:20
  • $\begingroup$ How about a remotely (ATC-)activated autopilot, unoverridable from cockpit for an ATC-defined amount of time (or until disengagement command sent from ATC)? That would solve the problem of required bandwidth and, depending on the amount of available fuel, buy some time for negotiations/interceptions/whatever. Any such command issued by an ATC should immediately brought to attention of some other ATCs, by sound alert or sth. like that, and they should be allowed to tune in on the voice conn. Multiple "downvotes" by them should make the system unlock the autopilot. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Mar 27 '15 at 10:50
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    $\begingroup$ @Alexander How about some organization spends an inordinate amount of time and resources in order to crack the system. Now you have remotely controllable aircraft capable of being used (e.g. 9/11) in horrific acts of terrorism. Or, not even terrorists, some government might want the ability to control the aircraft of another government (Russia/Ukraine, Israel/Any arab nation, ISIS/Any infidel run country, etc.) $\endgroup$ – CGCampbell Mar 27 '15 at 12:40
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Is it possible to convert a Commercial Airplane into a Drone

For what its worth, yes this would be technically possible however it comes with some risks.

When To Take Control: This brings into the simple idea that in an emergency the pilot may need to be in control of the situation as they often have the most information about exactly what is happening. If the plane had a serious issue and the ground controller did not know what was happening they may take control and only exacerbate the problem.

Connection Reliability: Keep in mind that planes are flying at very high altitudes moving quite fast. Maintaining a reliable connection in these conditions is difficult. Since a reliable connection is hard enough to maintain you again may create more issues than you solve. This also has to be a fully duplexed channel since the plane needs to transmit its telemetry and receive control inputs in what is more or less real time. At this point the data up/down rates would push the limits of what we can do today.

Connection Security: As mentioned you would need to secure the connection to prevent someone from taking it over maliciously. This in and of its self is a big problem. But lets not turn this into a digital security debate.

Cost: As nice as safety is its not free. Since there is currently no system in place on a global scale to do this it would have to be created. Someone has to pay for that and unless the FAA is going to require it you will have to get the airlines/aircraft makers on board with this voluntarily. On top of that any system that is added like this would have to be certified by the FAA.

So while it is possible there are very real barriers to a system like this include but are not limited to the ones listed above and before someone comes back with the "if it makes it safer than we should spend the time figuring it out" response I will mention that modern technology is as good as it is and there are already companies and individuals researching new tech like this but Keep in mind that with FAA regulations taking the time they do to get, planes are flying with tech that is now considered "dated" by the tech world.

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    $\begingroup$ I take issue with your points about connection security and reliability, because the military makes these connections with their drones all the time. $\endgroup$ – raptortech97 Mar 27 '15 at 2:07
  • $\begingroup$ Yes they do but they can afford momentary drop outs as well as a more or less small fleet and thus can devote massive resources to a single drone. Doing this for every aircraft in the sky would be difficult. $\endgroup$ – Dave Mar 27 '15 at 2:27
  • $\begingroup$ And it's a drone with nobody on board. If it crashes, you lose hardware, not lives. (Understanding, of course, that if it's an armed drone, there could be a larger than expected explosion on the ground.) $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Mar 27 '15 at 12:35
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    $\begingroup$ @raptortech97 Regarding the military, even in the relatively short history of drones, remote control hacks have already happened, even by governments with relatively unsophisticated capabilities. Now imagine this had been an A380 instead of an RQ-170 and al-Qaeda instead of Iran. That's a pretty good reason not to do this. $\endgroup$ – reirab Mar 27 '15 at 14:40
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    $\begingroup$ @raptortech97, hence the parenthetical expression at the end... $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Mar 27 '15 at 14:44
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In order to prevent both incidents such as Malaysia 370 and Germanwings 9525, you would need a system that could have immediate and complete control of the plane, as well as impossible to be disabled by the crew.

In addition to the other reasons offered, this sounds like it would be a bad thing more often than it would help. Is the plane allowed to fly if it is not working? Who decides when to take over control? ATC? Do we trust that whole system?

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  • $\begingroup$ Do you know something about MH370 that I don't? Been diving for those recorders have you? ;) $\endgroup$ – falstro Apr 20 '16 at 5:24
  • $\begingroup$ @falstro I too was curious as to the relevance of that incident... $\endgroup$ – Cloud Feb 8 '18 at 16:09
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Is it possible to convert a Commercial Airplane into a Drone?

Techical feasibility is just one aspect.

Let's start from what is a Drone nowadays: it is a remotely controlled aircraft. This means that to "convert" a commercial aircraft into a drone you need:

  1. a pilot on ground
  2. bi-directional communication

Bi-directional communication is the "easy" part: plug in a bi-directiona antenna, write some thousand lines of code to make it usable within the aircraft system, spend years and tons of money to certify the new components and the code and you're good to go.

Now you need qualified personnel on ground continuously on stand-by, something that is going to cost (and is not given that it will popular).


Now let me add a second part:

Would it be useful?

It is not given, by reading the few official informations available ATC had no idea about the situation on board in those 8 minutes, it is not given that such a system would have been activated.

Should it be done?

I would say that the benefits are dubious at best: you're opening a channel on every aircraft that allows them to be controlled remotely. Someone is gonna try to crack whatever encryption is going to be used, with results much worse than the original "problem".

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    $\begingroup$ That last paragraph for me is key to this answer! $\endgroup$ – CGCampbell Mar 27 '15 at 12:35
  • $\begingroup$ Frederic, the following comment is not to answer the original question, but to address your " second part " comment. If this type of remote take over technology was available, it would have its advantages in some specific emergency situations, especially for smaller type private jets where hypoxia had become the concern. The distressed aircraft could then be remotely flown to a lower altitude until the situation was stabilized or flown over an unpopulated area. ...Thank you $\endgroup$ – garyv440 May 4 '15 at 13:40
  • $\begingroup$ @garyv440 it's Federico. Anyway, my remark remains valid: would the benefit be enough to counteweight the inherent problems of such an idea? aren't there other solutions? $\endgroup$ – Federico May 4 '15 at 14:27
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Is it possible to convert a Commercial Airplane into a Drone?
Yes

Can it be done at will?
Not likely

Boeing has converted an F-16 into an unmanned drone (some pictures here).

Please note that it cannot be done just by the push of a button, in a case similar to the Germanwings airplane. A drone costs a lot of money, and fitting every airplane with such technology is not feasible.

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  • $\begingroup$ Incidentally, the conversion of aircraft into drones was first done in 1935; the goal of that (and, for that matter, of the QF-16) is to be an aerial target. $\endgroup$ – cpast Mar 27 '15 at 0:20
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I'm interpreting your question as really two questions:

1. Can commercial aircraft be modified so that they can be remotely piloted?

Yes, with some hardware modifications on the aircraft to allow for command and control and telemetry data to be transmitted. If installed as a separate system, you would need VHF/UHF antennas, RF amplifiers, FMS/autopilot interface, etc. On the ground, a bunch of directional antennas and ground stations strategically/geographically placed to allow for maximum coverage. Realistically, UHF communication is only going to get you out to around 150 miles or so in good conditions. Any further than that, and you need microwave (GHz frequency) links, and even then, this is no good over the oceans due to curvature of the earth. HF is an option, but I'm not sure how well you can use that for reliable data transmission.

The good news is that ATC towers and aircraft already have equipment that operates at these higher frequencies – the radar transponder/beacon system – however, serious modification of the system is required to make this feasible. Aircraft telemetry requires a much wider bandwidth, and more constant connection than what's necessary to ping back with a simple four-digit code that transponders currently reply with, though it's possible, but probably at the expense of other aircraft flying in the same region, as the directional ground antenna would have to be pointed at the aircraft in question (and not constantly rotating).

2. Can ground controllers take over in the event of an emergency?

If this became a thing in commercial aviation, it would likely be at the behest of governments and their aviation authorities, not private airlines. The sheer cost of equipment upgrades would not make, say, Delta and Lufthansa corporate types happy, but it would be very popular with equipment manufacturers like Boeing, Rockwell-Collins, and BAE.

So let's say we solved the problem of communication mechanism with the aircraft, we still need command/control equipment on the ground. The military has long been a pioneer in the field of unmanned systems, and I speak from experience that it has taken a long time to get to the point where they are currently. Early systems were all a hodgepodge of various protocols, datalink standards, and ground control stations, but ever so steadily reaching commonality.

One of the earliest attempts at this was the One Station Ground Control System (OSGCS), developed in the early 2000's, but even as of five years ago, was not in common use across the board, mostly due to program and fielding costs. These costs would likely see any commercial-sector implementation at national levels, where command and control centers would house the (most) expensive equipment and the qualified operators, with a network connection to the ATC towers with the communication equipment. In practical theory, I don't think this would go down well, but let's assume a perfect ATC system for the time being.

So then there's the security of the system. What prevents anyone from hijacking an aircraft remotely? Now you need to add a very good authentication/encryption mechanism, and standardize that across national boundaries. What if it's a foreign carrier over your soil? And good luck getting the United States to share its cryptography standards.

Then there's the human factor – what override procedures are available to the pilots, if any? What options does the ground commander have at his disposal?

So I think it's entirely possible, but there are a ton of obstacles to overcome, and implementing this system would take years (probably decades at best) and billions of dollars to achieve.

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Can you if you prepare for it? Yes, it's been done for both full scale crash tests NASA's controlled impact demonstration and boeing's crash experiment; the final leg of the flights was done remotely both times (you don't want a pilot in there for longer than you need to).

It requires modification of the aircraft to decode the radio signals into control inputs. But the existing auto pilot will help a lot. Doing so remotely in mid-flight is flat out impossible.

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