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Runway-debris technology could save lives

Nov. 18, 2013, Washington, D.C. - New technology that scans airport runways for debris has received U.S. approval as part of an effort to save lives, and the aviation industry billions of dollars a year in aircraft damage.


November 18, 2013
By Bloomberg

The system monitors a 2,000-metre runway at Boston Logan
International with radars and high-definition video to ensure it is free
of metal shards, rocks and other items that could damage a speeding
plane, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday. If an
object as small as a bolt lands on the runway, an alarm sounds in the
control tower.

 

Such “foreign object debris” or FOD causes an
estimated $4 billion a year worldwide in mangled jet engines, torn
fuselages and other damage, according to National Aerospace FOD
Prevention Inc., a non-profit industry group, and Boeing Co. It has also
triggered fatal crashes.

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“The constant safety checks around the
clock really help raise the safety bar,” Christa Fornarotto, the FAA’s
associate administrator for airports, said in an interview.

 

While
rare, debris has caused accidents. On July 25, 2000, an Air France
supersonic Concorde crashed shortly after takeoff in Paris after
striking a metal strip on the runway. The strip shredded one of the
plane’s tires, sending rubber shards into a fuel tank and igniting a
fire. The plane lifted off and crashed into a hotel, killing all 109
aboard and four on the ground.

 

The U.S. National Transportation
Safety Board has investigated at least three aviation accidents linked
to runway debris since 2006, according to agency records. None caused
injuries or deaths.

 

The Boston system made by Xsight Systems,
based in Tel Aviv, has 68 sensors to monitor the length of Runway 9-27.
It’s the first debris detector to receive FAA certification.

 

“They can sit in the tower and see what is really out there,” Alon Nitzan, president and CEO of Xsight, said in an interview.

 

Its
$1.7 million cost was split between the airport and the FAA, Ed Freni,
director of aviation at the Massachusetts Port Authority, said in an
interview.

 

Airport runways are now swept for debris several times a day by workers who drive the length of the landing strip.

 

“Going
down the runway every few hours is just not enough,” Nitzan said.
“We’re very optimistic other airports will adopt the technology.”

 

Other
companies, including London-based QinetiQ Group Plc, are also
developing similar systems, according to an FAA press release.

 

QinetiQ’s Tarsier system is in use at Vancouver International Airport, according to YVR representative Jenny Duncan.

 

San
Diego-based Trex Enterprises Corp., which makes a mobile FOD detection
system, and Stratech Systems Ltd. of Singapore have also made systems
evaluated by the FAA.

Nitzan said the global market for such systems over the next decade or two may be as much as $5 billion.

 

Airports
that have installed the systems find they improve efficiency, Edwin
Herricks, coordinator of the airport safety management program at the
University of Illinois’s Centre of Excellence for Airport Technology, in
Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, said in an interview.

 

Having a
real-time runway monitor can prevent shutdowns or shorten their duration
if a report of debris turns out to be a false alarm, Herricks said. He
helped the FAA evaluate the detection systems.

 

Miami International
Airport has plans to install a debris-monitoring system, and other
airports are interested, Chris Oswald, vice president for safety and
regulatory affairs at the Washington-based trade group, Airports Council
International-North America, said in an interview.

 

“There is good
anecdotal evidence the systems can be part of an effective FOD control
program and airport safety program,” Oswald said. “But the costs are
perceived by airports as quite high.”