Patented Boeing Autopilot Technology Questioned in Missing Malaysia Flight MH370

By Joseph Mandour on April 23, 2014

Patent RegistrationOrange County – Back in 2003 Boeing applied for and was granted a patent for technology that allows for remote control operation of an in-air plane’s flight path.  The application suggests that the remote control autopilot system be engaged “when the security of the onboard controls is jeopardized.”

Now, in the aftermath of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, some are wondering if the technology set forth in the patent could have changed the plane’s fate.  Especially before the plane was presumed lost at sea by the Malaysian government on March 27, commentators pondered whether the plane could have been hijacked via remote control access by someone on the ground.  The purpose of the Boeing patent is much the opposite – to retake control of an aircraft hijacked in the air by initiating an autopilot program from the ground.  However, contrary to the beliefs of some who speculated that it would have been impossible for someone to overtake the plan from the ground, the technology does in fact exist (and has for years).

The text of the patent, entitled “System and method for automatically controlling a path of travel of a vehicle,” U.S. Patent No. 7142971B2, describes how an autopilot program could be initiated either by someone inside a compromised plane or by someone on the ground.  From the point of initiation, ” Any onboard capability to supersede the automatic control system may then be disabled by disconnecting the onboard controls and/or providing uninterruptible power to the automatic control system via a path that does not include the onboard accessible power control element.”

In other words, power would be completely removed from those inside the plane and the aircraft would be 100% controlled by remote operation.  The technology is so developed that upon engaging the system, a person from the ground could navigate, fly and land the plane with no involvement from the pilot whatsoever as the power controls are made inaccessible to anyone on board the aircraft.  While the technology has desirable uses that some have already suggested could have changed the outcomes of tragedies such as the September 11 hijackings and the missing flight MH370, it is also obvious that if in the wrong hands, it could have the opposite effect.

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