Vancouver Airport Enters New Era In Removing Debris From Runways

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.

Vancouver actually has been piloting Tarsier with QinetiQ for the last three years, Vancouver's Richmond says, adding that he "never would have predicted" that some form of radar would have been part of the solution for detecting FOD. In his mind, radar seemed too imprecise for such a task. "I didn't know it could be this particular," he admits.

Walker also says the firm has been conducting Tarsier tests at Dubai Int'l (DXB) in India, Heathrow Airport (LHR) in London, John F. Kennedy Int'l (NYC) in New York, Sydney Int'l (SYD) in Australia, and Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Texas. Discussions are ongoing as to which facility might join Vancouver with the next permanent setup.

Moreover, Richmond says there is "nothing wrong" with the traditional method of having grounds workers drive up and down between takeoffs and departures. Each runway at Vancouver has been getting about four of these passes per day. It works out the best, of course, if something truly hazardous has just been dropped on a runway. Otherwise, it could take nearly four hours before a piece of FOD is spotted.

But with Tarsier, detection time is expected to range from one to three minutes, depending on the size of the object and the size of the area being scanned, QinetiQ's Walker says.

Also, everyone at Vancouver expects to see a significant increase in accuracy. "I can't stress this enough," Richmond adds, "nobody has ever checked a runway 100 percent of the time all the time."

QinetiQ's installation at Vancouver is scheduled to be completed by the middle of 2006. The airport will have two radar transmitters for each of its two main runways, or four total. Once Transport Canada officially certifies the new system, the airport can completely replace the old system of on-site visual inspection.

Like the latest video-surveillance technology, certain rules are written into the software to best meet the needs of the operators or the facility. One pretty obvious rule is not having the alarm go off for "debris" detected in the form of aircraft or baggage carts. Another example might be a seagull that "touches down" on the runway for a few seconds, then takes off soon after -- which wouldn't cause an alarm. A seagull that decides to pause for a while, however, would raise an alarm.

In addition, Tarsier could be adjusted to prioritize certain areas of the runway, QinetiQ's Walker tells Air Safety Week. Takeoff or landing areas, for example, could be designated as priority areas, while runway ends could be de- prioritized. But Vancouver officials decided that they didn't want that kind of decision taken away from them, he adds.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit, non-partisan industry group, National Aerospace FOD Prevention, Inc., could not comment by press time, a representative of the group tells Air Safety Week.

>>Contacts: Brett Patterson, Director of Aviation Operations, Vancouver, (604) 276-6305; QinetiQ, Cody Technology Park, Ively Road, Farnborough, Hampshire, GU14 0LX, UK; +44 (0)8700 100 942,

The Tarsier FOD-Detection System

The inspiration for UK-based QinetiQ's foreign object debris (FOD) detection system is the tarsier monkey of the Malay Archipelago, which has excellent vision, especially at night. QinetiQ's Tarsier radar transmitter is deployed on a demonstration basis at Heathrow Airport (LHR) in London.

At the far right is a representation of what Tarsier will display on- screen to airport personnel; see the story text above on this page for an explanation. (The text and text boxes have been enlarged to make them easier to read).

Sources: Environmental Literacy Council, QinetiQ

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