Thales chief commits to improve aviation security

 - May 29, 2008, 9:36 AM

From his Paris office thousands of miles away François Lureau was as horrified by what he saw on September 11 as the millions of Americans who watched on television in stunned disbelief. But unlike most Americans, as the CEO of a multinational aerospace and defense company, Lureau was in a unique position to do something about the terrorist attacks–or at least to help ensure that nothing like it ever happened again.

Immediately after the attacks, the 57-year-old executive directed top lieutenants within Thales Aerospace, the French company he has piloted since July 2000, to form a task force to study ways of improving air security using existing technologies applied both in the air and on the ground. Within weeks the Thales team, personally led by Lureau, had mapped out a strategy for the company for the next several years, the initial phase of which involved offering one-on-one security consultations to airlines, airports, government bodies and others free of charge.

With a plan of attack firmly in place, Lureau recounted how he was poised to focus not only his energy but also the considerable resources of his company on developing ways of improving air security.

“This was not about doing business,” said Lureau during an interview with AIN last month in Manhattan. “It was about doing the right thing. It was about taking all the competencies of our company to help combat terrorist threats on a global scale. It’s a complex problem, and it will require a long-term effort–years not months–to improve all the links of the security chain. But we must think globally to improve every aspect of air transport security–and we should not become overly focused on what happened on September 11, because whatever the terrorists dream up next we can be sure it will be nothing like that terrible day.”

The trip to Manhattan was Lureau’s first since the attacks. He recounted how the images from New York and Washington, cities he visits often, left him awestruck and deeply troubled. This brief visit to midtown Manhattan just before Christmas was uplifting, he said. “It’s good to see so many people in the streets, to see that things are indeed getting back to normal.”

For anyone questioning why a French executive should be so committed to combating terrorists who struck more than 3,500 mi from his home city, it is worth noting that Lureau earned a doctorate in economics from Stanford University, and that North America accounts for more than 20 percent of Thales’ revenue, a figure that has been on the rise since he took the company’s reins. More than this, however, Lureau simply mirrors the opinions and is affected by the same emotions as much of the world. He views terrorism as the world’s problem. As such, he said he believes it demands a worldwide response, adding that Thales has a full range of skills that it can apply toward enhancing air transport safety and security.

Most of the company’s ideas–such as digital fingerprint readers to control access to sensitive airport areas–are intended for use at airport terminals served primarily by large airlines. But a number of the concepts would apply broadly across all segments of aviation.

One such device is a tiny camera that can see even in total darkness, which Boeing plans to begin installing on new airplanes soon. The camera would be positioned in the passenger compartment and its image viewed by pilots in the cockpit on an LCD.

Lureau said the camera could be installed on board business jets to give pilots a window into the cabin in the event that terrorists somehow managed to get on board a private jet, something that he said is more of a concern for commercial operators than traditional Part 91 flight departments, which tend to be familiar with passengers.

Another technology that could be used aboard bizjets is automatic dependent surveillance-contract (ADS-C) technology, a two-way communications link that automatically sends aircraft position information to the ground. This, coupled with mode-S transponders that cannot be switched off, would give controllers and law enforcement the precise location of an airplane despite terrorists’ best efforts to keep their intentions secret.

Developing a transponder that cannot be shut off in the air would probably require a squat switch on the landing gear that would activate the security feature, and perhaps a remote-located transponder processor box that would be difficult to disable in flight, both of which Lureau said Thales is studying.

Other security devices that Lureau believes Thales could start delivering in the next two years would be digital fingerprint readers for accessing the flight deck, as well as sensors that would transmit pictures and sound to command centers on the ground and enhanced controller aids designed to trigger alarms automatically should an airplane stray from its intended course.

Lureau’s long-term vision includes development of airport terminal video-processing equipment that would be able to detect suspicious activity or suspicious-looking individuals, network computer systems that would be impenetrable to attacks by hackers and identification documents such as ID badges that would be virtually impossible to falsify.

Lureau also said that designers are modifying the software of the company’s in-development ground collision avoidance device (GCAS) to draw artificial defense perimeters around cities. Engineers believe it would be possible to design a flight control override system for Airbus fly-by-wire airliners that would prevent anyone from purposefully flying an airplane through the defensive veil into a building.

Thales is a major supplier of avionics to Airbus and, along with L3 Communications, is designing a terrain awareness warning system that would reside in the same box as L3’s TCAS 2000, a popular traffic alerter flying today aboard a number of airliners and business jets. Called T2CAS, the product would combine TCAS, GCAS and other sensors such as weather radar, navigation and communication in a single unit.

But in spite of the new products on his company’s drawing boards, Lureau said security would be a main focus within Thales for years to come.

“Passengers must be confident that the airplanes on which they are flying are secure,” said Lureau. “There will be other opponents in the future. Air security obviously needs to be far more robust than it is today. I believe humans are best suited to handle security situations, but we need to give pilots the proper tools.”

This means enhanced training, an area with which Thales is well versed. In fact, not only does Thales build full flight simulators and develop pilot training courses, it is a leading designer of emergency training facilities to a wide array of industries, including Europe’s nuclear power agencies.

In the coming months Lureau said he plans to meet with industry executives and government leaders, both to listen to their ideas and provide his own suggestions. He said he realizes that many aerospace companies are likely to become involved in the security field, and that many have similar ideas. There’s room for all ideas, he said, but suggested his company is perhaps best suited to bring such concepts to fruition quickly.

“Our duty in this case is not to think of our business; it is to offer solutions,” said Lureau. “This is what we are focusing on. We are positioning ourselves to help in any way we can, not to make profits. The question is whether a company has the full complement of capabilities. Thales is one of the few companies in the world that does.”