Vancouver Airport Enters New Era In Removing Debris From Runways

UK-based QinetiQ is preparing to install what the firm and the airport believe is the first high-tech runway debris detection system in North America at Vancouver.

There has to be a better way of finding and removing runway debris -- like all the metal scraps, bolts, animal carcasses and garden-variety litter -- than periodically sending grounds workers out to visually inspect the runways.

At least, that's what officials with Vancouver Int'l Airport (YVR) thought six years ago when first confronting the challenge, says Craig Richmond, YVR's vice president of airport operations. As airport operators and airline officials know, even small pieces of what the industry calls "foreign object debris" (FOD) can cause dangers during takeoffs or landings. Now, UK-based QinetiQ is preparing to install what the firm and the airport believe is the first high-tech runway debris detection system in North America at Vancouver.

The fatal July 25, 2000, crash of an Air France Concorde at Paris was caused by runway debris (Air Safety Week, Sept. 11, 2000). During its takeoff roll, the Concorde's tires struck a thrust reverser shim dropped on the runway by a preceding Continental Airlines [CAL] DC-10. The burst tires punctured the Concorde's wing tanks, and the fuel gushing out was ignited by the arcing of electrical wires in the wheel well. The wires also had been cut by the tire fragments.

YVR officials shopped among firms from around the world, and didn't find any runway debris detection system comparable to QinetiQ's, Richmond tells Air Safety Week. Furthermore, QinetiQ's system is the only one "even close to being put into service." There are people and labs with similar ideas, but they're still "back of the envelope" ideas or they have considerable flaws that need to be worked out.

QinetiQ's Tarsier system combines millimeter-wave technology, GPS signals and an active radar array to give human operators instantaneous awareness that an object as small as a coke bottle or a bolt has dropped somewhere on one of the runways, says Dominic Walker, QinetiQ's product manager for the system. The name "Tarsier" is taken from a primate species in the Malay Archipelago, whose large eyes provide the animals with especially acute night vision.

Also, millimeter wave technology so far has been affiliated mostly with the next wave of baggage security screening (see Air Safety Week, Jan. 30.)

What the Tarsier system does for the job of runway FOD checking is similar to what the state-of-the-art in radar and video surveillance technology does for airport grounds and perimeter security (Air Safety Week, Jan. 23) -- bringing all the data into one centralized workstation and emitting an alarm when something is found that meets certain pre-programmed parameters. In other words, nobody has to constantly "make the rounds" up and down the runways. Nor does anyone have to stare all day at a video monitor or an on-screen readout.

When some FOD is detected, an audible beep or flashing light is emitted - - which an operator can adjust -- accompanied by an on-screen icon. For more than one item of FOD, more than one icon is displayed. In an example of an on- screen display (see the box below), three circular icons appear together on a simple graphic representation of the airport's runways and taxiways. Two FOD icons (normally in yellow) appear side by side on a taxiway; just above that is a third icon representing the radar transmitter (normally in green). At the bottom of the screen, there is a separate line for each item of FOD, giving its exact GPS coordinates.

If the operator chooses, he/she can right click on an icon, bringing up a box, where some comments can be typed in. Although the nature of these remarks will be defined by the airport operator, it might be something as simple as "John Smith dispatched to retrieve debris," QinetiQ's Walker says.

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