back to article Robot airliner anti-missile escorts proposed

US tech and aerospace firm Honeywell has submitted a patent proposal which would see airliners protected from shoulder-fired terrorist missiles by drone escorts. Flight International reports that Honeywell lawyers filed the proposals last month. The idea would be that as an aircraft took off, the unmanned escort would fly …


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  1. Alex


    ...until one of them decides to take out 'it's master'!

    Mines the one with the EMP unit in the pocket..

  2. Anonymous Coward

    The Benefits of FUD

    So for a threat that's barely there (lower risk than crossing the road, for instance) a large defence company plans to profit from making an extremely expensive product that no-one really needs.

    For that to work, then some people, somewhere (use your imagination) would have to beat up the threat to create an apparent need. Hmmmm. It's not like that's ever happened before .....

    Mine's the cloak with the dagger in the pocket.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    "If this failed, the robot aircraft would take the hit."

    Er what happens if they fire another missile?

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Again with the aircraft...

    I can't really be bothered to look for them right now, but I'd be interested to see the stats on the targets of successful terrorist attacks. Are flights really that heavily targetted that such a seemingly enormous effort needs to be poured into "protecting" them, be that through "enhanced" "security" in airports, or schemes such as this? A breakdown of terrorist "kills" by location related to the amount of money spent on mediating this risk would be nice.. And before anyone starts, one life lost is too many yadda yadda yadda.. Yes. I know. I'm just interested in whether or not the response is proportionate..

  5. Daniel

    This is, until that same department actually wants to shoot one down?

    One of the most pesimistic and depressing elements of the way that the attacks of 2001 were dealt with by the US government, was the scrambling of the Air Force with orders to shoot down any other airliners that might show signs of having been hijacked. On this assumption - that the only way of deflecting a rogue airliner would be to destroy that airliner - are the Air Force to have some means of circumventing these defensive features? After all, when you've declared war on 'being afraid', even your own people become legitimate targets.

    What if an Air Force jet gets hijacked?

    Surely there comes a point where putting in counter-counter-counter measures no longer make sense, and a better option might be to stop making enemies?

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    stupid idea

    The probability of a collision between drone and aircraft, resulting in a crash, is surely higher than, or comparable to, the probability of a terrorist shooting a missile at a plane. This is therefore a waste of time, since it would cause more accidents than it prevented.

    In any case, passengers are far more likely to be killed by a regular crash. Hence, it would make more sense to spend the money making plane crashes moderately survivable instead; for example by properly fireproofing the interior, using multi-point seat belts, airbags, or any of the multitude of other technologies that are in cars, but not aircraft.

  7. The Prevaricator


    They advertise manpads on Saga TV; they avoid much embarrassment to the sphincterially-challenged.

  8. Tom Richards
    Thumb Down

    Opportunity cost?

    This sounds like a classic movie-plot threat, and movie-plot response. Wouldn't paying this money to informants inside the terror community be a better use of the money? This proposal was being discussed six years ago (see, and there are significant problems associated with it: like, given the very small number of missiles that might be fired at commercial aircraft (see; four attacks since 1993, mostly in warzones), and given the hundreds of drones that would need to fly 24 hours per day, isn't an aircraft more likely to be brought down by a faulty drone than a properly launched missile? It's the base-rate fallacy all over again.

  9. Steve Button

    Why can't missiles tell the difference....

    ... between a jet engine and a flare? Surely it's only a matter of time before the technology advances enough?

  10. chris morton
    Thumb Down

    manpads? seriously?

    could someone not have come up with a better name?

    manpads, now with wings!

  11. Dave


    Hard to see how any of this is patentable: merely an escorting fighter (already common-place) fitted with a robot pilot.

    Glad to hear that the idea is being talked about though.

  12. David Hicks

    I thought the only people to have shot down airliners... living memory where the US air force on "practice" manoeuvres?

    Either way, this is scary. I'm really not worried about that possibility, but I am getting very scared of what the west is turning into.

  13. Dave Bell

    Nice idea, but...

    Honeywell are right about the cost of fitting every airliner with protection against a rare threat. But this isn't a cheap answer either. And it still seems to need extra gear on the airliner.

    And actually getting these robots to work as advertised is going to be an interesting, and well-paid, engineering problem.

    Building robots which will collide with fewer airliners than are successfully attacked by MANPADS could be a tad tricky. And they shouldn't be accidentally falling out of the sky, either. Look at where the flightpaths for Heathrow are.

  14. Adam Foxton

    So what about

    someone who fires two rockets at the same plane? Or number of drones + 1 rockets, anyway. Like one of those anti-air tracer-ammo-equipped guns you see on the news?

    Still, seems a pretty good idea if they're just having rockets shot at them one-at-a-time.

  15. alistair millington
    Thumb Down

    Has to be americans.

    The cost of having the drones will be huge, the cost of flying them will be huge and who is paying for all this. The air lines? Airports and then who pays for them... customers...

    Wouldn't it be better to say military planes and air force 1 will be protected. Then military budgets can be wasted on them instead?

    No one has shot down a plane with one, and no one has shot at one outside Africa.

    Cheaper to just surround the airport with CCTV and roving patrols of armed guards. 50 grand a year for two guys with machine guns. Or a couple of million per unit with fuel costs and the operator costs to fly them for each plane?.

    I would love to see the airtraffic controllers bill for that one... Landing double the number planes on an airfield just to get the drones back for the next flight. Heathrow lands a plane every one and a half minutes. So you go figure the drones into that.

  16. michael
    Black Helicopters

    I for one

    welcome the first wave of flying overlords

  17. Jon

    oh no!

    just when you thought the EasyJet online booking procedure couldn't get any more complicated...

  18. Crypty
    Thumb Down

    Awful idea

    allowing a drone to fly in formation with an airliner introduces two big problems..

    A: A hacked drone could do the job of the missile.

    B: Drones can crash too and again this can, albeit accidentally, bring down the airliner.

    In general it can be said that, for safety at least, simplier is better and in this case... Airliners and drones flying in formation is not a simple thing.

  19. The Jon


    ... you just fire 2 missiles now: one to take out the drone, one to take out the airliner?

  20. James
    Thumb Down

    Crash and Burn

    So would this not just double the traffic in an already overcrowded airspace? I wonder how long it would be before a plane is downed by a mid-air collision between an aircraft and it's escort.

    P.S. I don't like the new icons.

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    If one of these missiles chooses to attack the airplane instead it will be sent for retraining. We take not killing our customers seriously and will issue a robust and far-reaching response every time it happens.

  22. Anonymous Coward

    Post anonymously?

    Actually... apart from being a massive pork barrel this system doesn't seem that far fetched... presumably the droids would be controlled from the ground at least during take off and landing... the system would probably be scrapped faster than you can say british beef if one of the droids decided to clip a 747 either by accident or by design (on apparent colision course with master: check, hot exhaust profile: check, 'fired' from ground: check... must be a missile then ;o)

    .selissim 2 kcap ot hguone revelc t'nera stsirorret eht taht epoh tsuj stel

    because Islamic terrorists would never think of reading from right to left....

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    Fire 2 missiles

    So 1 drone takes down 1 missile.... so why wouldn't you fire 2 missiles, or 3? Or fire thousands of bullets phalanx style.....

  24. Joe K
    Thumb Down

    My patent

    The tiger-repelling rock.

    "You don't see any tigers around here do you?"

    Must be great to potentially get contracts worth millions for something thats never happened.

    Oh and these new icons are SHITE!

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Considering it's the Americans who have more experience in shooting down an airliner, it's interesting that they are offering a defence against it.

  26. Anonymous Coward


    Sounds like some kind of incontinence product for men?

  27. Frumious Bandersnatch Silver badge
    Black Helicopters

    prior art

    R-Type (IIRC) and similar shooters (the ones with power-ups that give escorts that fly in formation around your ship) surely constitute prior art? If not, I predict a hasty rush to install MAME on all defence contractors' patent lawyers' LANs. Send off every Zig!

  28. Dale

    So many reasons this will never work

    Where to begin...? The extra runway that would be needed to launch the drone in parallel with the plane; the number of drones needed to protect a plane taking off every two minutes at Heathrow up to 18000 (and they want to increase that to 90 seconds); multiple missiles (obviously); after the first drone has sacrificed itself, what "protects" planes until its replacement arrives; etc, etc. I can't believe I even bothered to spend time replying to such an obviously stupid idea.

  29. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Would This Have Saved that Air Iran Flight?

    Just wondering, since I think that may be the only airliner ever downed by a missile...

    Oh, and you have a bug in FF 3/Mac. The subject box is shorter than its surrounding border, so the text just disappears.

  30. RG

    @David Hicks

    Forgive me for saying, but that's a short memory you have. The then USSR shot down KAL Flight 007 over Kamchatka in 1983 with the loss of 269 lives. It caused an enormous international uproar with various serious threats being made and suspension or cancellation of many diplomatic activities.

  31. Nick Cassimatis

    Air traffic gridlock

    So sitting on the ground at LaGuardia for an extra 2 hours because there are too many planes around isn't enough, now I can sit there because the drones need to come in for fuel?

    "Uh, we're sorry folks, but we'll be delayed another hour or so, as the runway is in use to land the drones. No, not a Northwest flight (sorry - old joke), but the ones to protect you and make sure your flight isn't interrupted."

  32. druck Silver badge
    Thumb Down

    Wake vortices

    An absolutely stupid idea, another aircraft, even a computer controlled drone, cannot fly that close to a large airliner during take off due to wake vortices. Certainly not close enough to prevent a missile from locking on to the air liner during the early stages of flight. You either put the counter measures on the airliner itself, or you don't worry about threats far less likely than the crashes for other reasons such as Madrid.

  33. Mike Richards Silver badge

    Another airline tax?

    So after charging extra for fuel, baggage, e-check-in, insurance, credit cards, airport improvements and wheelchairs; the airline will be able to add a £5000 drone charge to every £1 flight to Oslo.

    Of course if you fly RyanAir you just get a paperplane reading 'Come get me ya bastards!' towed behind the 737.

  34. Chris

    Re: Oversight

    You're missing a trick here; if each bot can only deal with one missile it's not a disadvantage....

    Oh no, it's an opportunity to SELL MORE BOTS!

    Whole swarms of the little guys whooshing around the airplane, doing barrel rolls of delight at the honour of guarding you (yes, you sir!) as you head off on your holidays...

    Come to think of it some kind of mob of groundbased bots to rush over and jump up and down on the nasty people firing at the airplane might be a good idea?

    ps. It's possible that I've been spending too much time with the sales guys recently... '=|

  35. Franklin

    I'd like to see the numbers...

    ...on how many people this hairbrained idea will get killed.

    Even assuming flawless engineering (HA!), flawless implementation (HA! HA!), and zero probability of collision between a drone and a plane it's escorting (HA! HA! HA!), this plan is going to cause deaths. I guarantee it.

    Building and operating flying-drone escorts for passenger planes will raise the price of airline tickets. No way around it; te money has to come from somewhere. Higher ticket prices will mean that fewer people will fly and more people will choose some other form of transportation, such as driving to their destination. Automobiles are statistically far more dangerous than planes, so some of those people who choose to drive instead will crash and die.

    Now, given the number of folks in the industrialized world who've been killed when their airliners were shot down by "teh terrerists" (a number that's been holding steady at, oh, about ZERO for the last few decades), and given the nonzero number of folks who die in car wrecks every year, this seems like a losing proposition to me.

  36. This post has been deleted by its author

  37. Franklin
    Thumb Down


    That's why I specified "industrialized countries". This sort of kit would only be deployed in places that don't need it. I don't see it getting used in commercial airports in what used to be Yugoslavia, somehow.

  38. Bounty

    why do the drones need the flares?

    Why not just put a flare/chaff system on the freaking airliner?

    p.s. if the chase bot is on the wrong side of the plane, say right side... and the rocket launched comes from the left, how is it going to manuever into place in time, fire flairs... then plot and manage an intercept course, all while not hitting the plane, causing wierd wind etc? Last time I checked, rockets are pretty fast. Hell why not put an encapsulated pop-out chain gun the bottom that can poke holes in the rocket... or a small stinger battery? Or field a ground based interceptor system? I'm guessing you don't want this stuff on all planes, just the ones in landing in Africa or in the East/Russia?

  39. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    Re: KAL Flight 007

    Bad example for three reasons.

    First of all, KAL Flight 007 was at cruising altitude when it got shot down, so it was neither taking off nor landing, which therefor puts it out of reach of terrorists.

    Second, it was shot down by Soviet fighter planes, which does not compare to ground-launched missiles of any kind.

    Third, and most important, it wasn't terrorists that downed the flight, it was the military forces of an independent country - which puts the means to the end way out of reach of terrorists as well.

    I mean really, if any country decides to shoot down a commercial airplane, do you really think there is a chance in Hell that the hapless passengers have a chance of making it back home alive ?

    The subject is terrorism, not state-sanctioned termination. You can argue that the then-USSR was guilty of a terrorist act and I will heartily agree, but you must also admit that the USSR had a bit more tools at its disposition than any terrorist organization has or will ever have.

    Apples and oranges, sir.

  40. Chris

    Another movie-plot threat makes it to reality

    is common-sense and realistic perspective really so rare in the upper echelons of society?

    If it takes 3 minutes to get to 13,000 ft (at ~4,000fpm) then a drone will have a minimum turnaround of 6 minutes (ascent & descent). Factor in taxi to take-off / formation, approach patterning and post-landing taxiing and refuelling then the time between drone take-offs will be in the order of 20 minutes assuming 100% efficiency and no failures or snafus.

    Taking a wild guess at there being 150 major airports in the mainland US, with an average of, say, 1 take off per minute then there will be a requirement of 3,000 drones, again assuming 100% efficiency. This number would be doubled when you factor in maintenance rotations and breakdowns.

    This will also increase the amount of pollution in and around airports by a significant factor, and will double the amount of air traffic in the sky below 13,000 ft. Half of this sub 13k traffic will be on remote (I assume).

    So in summary, they are proposing increasing fuel consumption, pollution, and risk of mid-air collision, to offset the potential risk of a terrorist obtaining a MANPAD and taking a potshot at an airliner - something that has only ever happened in a warzone ... oh and a movie.

    Why not just equip airliners with chaff and flare dispensers?

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