Tests have begun on a hijack-proof airliner that will steer clear of tall buildings if taken over by terrorists, according to defence giant BAE Systems.
Scientists are creating a computer system which spots suspicious passenger behaviour and can identify if an intruder is trying to take control.
It is part of a four-year 35.8 million euro (£25 million) project among European aviation specialists to thwart terrorists who have slipped through airport security.
Tests as part of the Security of Aircraft in the Future European Environment (SAFEE) project began in July.
They will continue through 2007 using simulators at Toulouse, Hamburg and Amsterdam.
In future passengers could be watched up by video and microphone sensors which are being developed by scientists at BAE Systems’ Advanced Technology Centre in Filton, Bristol.
CCTV, fingerprint technology and sophisticated biometric systems are also being created to ensure that only bona fide pilots take to the skies.
More than 100 aviation experts from 31 companies, including a team from Reading University, are taking part in the project, which aims to make the aircraft the last barrier of defence against terror attacks.
BAE Systems is leading the development of a Threat Assessment and Response Management System (TARMS) designed to assemble data and recommend appropriate responses for the cockpit crew via a computer screen.
Dr Catherine Neary, the BAE Systems human factors specialist, said: “How the crew and ground staff respond to perceived threats is as important as detecting the threats themselves.
“BAE Systems is using its expertise in surveillance and security techniques from the defence arena to support this project aimed at protecting civilians.”
A computer system designed to avoid collisions by changing the aircraft’s trajectory to stop it being steered into a building or mountain is among the potential on-board devices.
There may also be a computer which, through a sophisticated biometric system, can defy a mid-flight takeover by spotting an intruder and guiding the aircraft to the nearest airport.
The SAFEE programme includes a chip-based system which will match passengers to luggage, a biometric camera at check-in to verify passenger identity, and an electronic nose to sniff out explosives before boarding.
There will also be a secure cockpit biometric system which will recognise crew members by their fingerprints and check if they are opening the cockpit under duress.
A data protection system to secure communications including conversations between cockpit and ground control is also being drawn up.
SAFEE coordinator Daniel Gaultier said: “You never reach zero level of threat, no risk, but if you equip planes with on-board electronics, it will make them very difficult to hijack.”
The project runs until February 2008.