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Germanwings Crash Prompts Debate About Remote-Controlled Planes

Examining The Possibility of Remote Controlled Passenger Planes 0:34

LANGEN, Germany — Technology that would allow planes to be controlled remotely in situations similar to the Germanwings tragedy is being eyed by German authorities.

Investigators believe co-pilot Andreas Lubitz locked his captain out of the cockpit and deliberately crashed the Germanwings plane into a French mountainside on March 24, killing 150 people.

Flight 4U9525's descent took eight minutes, but authorities were powerless to intervene.

“French air traffic controllers were monitoring how the co-pilot put commands for zero altitude into the computer system, but could not do anything,” Axel Raab from German Air Traffic Control (DFS) told NBC News.

German officials have now started examining whether new research should be launched into systems that would allow the plane to be flown from the ground.

"We have to think past today's technology," DFS head Klaus Dieter Scheurle said at a press conference earlier this week.

FROM APRIL 3: Germanwings Co-Pilot Sped Up During Descent 1:36

In the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks and a Helios Airways crash in 2005, where the crew and passengers became unconscious, the European Union and several companies including DFS launched a research project called “Safe automatic flight back and landing of aircraft” — or SOFIA — in 2006.

Experts spent three years evaluating new systems that would allow air traffic controllers on the ground to take remote control of a passenger plane and safely land it in case of emergency.

"The crash of the Germanwings aircraft has given us some new impulse to think again about our research project," DFS spokeswoman Kristina Kelek said. "The main thought has been how could it be possible that we try to influence a flight, a cockpit from the ground in case of an emergency."

"One big question is if this would be an actual improvement or if we just create new risks."

Kelek said that the project did not lead to a real-world experiment "because the development of that specific equipment hasn't been yet done."

So far, airlines have reacted cautiously to the renewed initiative. A spokesperson for Lufthansa Group, the parent company of Germanwings said: "We took notice of the new proposals and are evaluating, in coordination with our partners in the task force, how we can improve aircraft security."

Some experts have warned of the vulnerability and safety risks of data streams between ground systems and aircraft.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office found in a report this week that because modern aircraft are increasingly connected to the Internet, "interconnectedness can potentially provide unauthorized remote access to aircraft avionics systems."

Watch Germanwings Co-Pilot Take Flight As Teen 1:10

Markus Wahl, the deputy spokesperson of the German airline pilots' association Cockpit, told NBC News that the concept of remote-controlled aircraft raised potential safety issues.

"At the current time there are too many unsolved questions, so we cannot support this," he said. "One big question is if this would be an actual improvement or if we just create new risks."

Wahl warned that once there is a remote control system, it could be used by someone who is not authorized. He also said that pilots are still best equipped to handle an emergency.

"In the event of an emergency, you need all the information, and the pilots sitting in the cockpit are the only ones who have all of it," he said.

Image: Rescue workers are seen at the crash site of the Germanwings Airbus A320, near Seyne-les-Alpes
Rescue workers near debris at the crash site of the Germanwings crash in the French Alps. Claude Paris / Pool via Reuters

Earlier this month, a task force of experts, industry representatives and government officials was established to assess new criteria for flight safety following the fatal Germanwings plane crash.

It will also examine the DFS' proposals "towards the end of its work process," a German official told NBC News.

However, DFS stressed that remote controls for passenger aircraft would be a “long-term project” and that any new technology would need to be approved and certified internationally by the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Reuters contributed to this report.