The computer age has totally altered the way vehicles are operated. No longer are there mechanical or hydraulic linkages between the operator’s controls and the devices being controlled. No steering shafts turning a gear box to change the direction of the wheels. No cables linking the accelerator pedal with the fuel delivery system. Today the inputs from the vehicle’s driver are sent to a computer which then electronically relays them to servo motors located at or near the components being controlled.
This is equally true for all types of vehicles, land sea or air.
With commercial aircraft many miles of mechanical cables and hydraulic hoses have been replaced by light weight electrical circuitry, saving in weight, expense and time required for complicated inspection and maintenance routines.
Additionally, the computers controlling the vehicles can be linked to the internet, providing many valuable services and conveniences. A lady with a snarky voice can inform you that she is “recalculating” when you miss a turn or, should you leave your keys on the seat and lock the car door, someone sitting in a far away cubicle can unlock the car for you. In the event of an accident that same person can alert emergency response teams if you fail to respond to his or her inquiry about possible injuries.
This innovation in transportation is truly wonderful but it comes at a price. Any computer system devised by the intelligence of a man can be hacked by the intelligence of another man. And in our very real world, anything that can be done eventually will be done.
I am a writer. As a spinner of fictional tales I feel that one of the most important aspects of the craft is proper research. I use a lot of aviation scenes in my books and as a pilot (Commercial, Single and Multi-Engine Land, Instrument) I want to be sure that what I write is a accurate as I can make it. That which I don’t know, and that covers a lot of territory, I research.
In my book the “Ice Cold Art Show” I have an ace computer hacker living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In one scene she has to take control of an automobile being driven by one of the lead characters. He is in Belize. Further into the story she uses similar skills to commandeer a private biz-jet, (Dassault Falcon). It took a lot of research to get these two scenes written and so far no one has disputed their possibility.
This brings us to the elephant in the room. Recently there have been several cases of people, known to be cautious drivers, killing themselves by driving recklessly at high speed. These cases have made the news because the person involved has usually been involved in some legal situation, is a whistle blower or an investigator of some sort, about to break a story. The scenario is pretty much the same each time and involves a high speed collision with a wall, bridge abutment or some other immovable object.
The following is a pull quote from a Wikipedia post: “Drive by wire systems can be “hacked” and their functions and control disabled or commandeered by either wired or wireless connectors.”
The complete article can be found at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drive_by_wire
A reasonable person might conclude that an unintended consequence of drive by wire vehicle operation is that it gives assassins or terrorists yet another tool to use in their nefarious business.
EgyptAir Flight 804 has joined joined Malayasia Flight 370 as an inexplicable aircraft disappearance. Shortly after the 370 incident I heard an aviation expert being interviewed by radio talk show host George Noory on Coast to Coast AM. When asked about the possibility of a hacking he responded, ( I paraphrase) “It isn’t worth discussing because it is utterly impossible to hack into an airliner’s computer system.”
While researching for my book I found several people who disagreed with that statement. While none of them had ever actually hacked into such a system, or prevented one from being hacked for that matter, I base my opinion on their more expert opinion, that although it might be difficult, it is certainly possible.
One mutually agreed on signature of a pilot attempting to regain manual control of a hacked system was erratic behavior of the aircraft, exactly as observed in 804 and 370. I addressed this by having my fictional hacker simply shut off the airplane’s oxygen supply.
In my heart I hope that the authorities are able to determine some less devious cause for the fate of these aircraft and that the families involved in both of those air tragedies will find solace and closure for their grief.
As a traveler I would like some official reassurance that hacking into an aircraft and commandeering it is solely in the realm of fiction.
I have included three additional links for those who would like to explore the subject further.