New Airport Radar Will Help Avoid Repeat of Concorde Crash

VANCOUVER, Aug 15, 2005 (AFP) - Vancouver airport will next year become the first in the world to operate a new radar system that can detect the smallest piece of debris on a runway with pinpoint accuracy, officials said.

Vancouver International Airport, on Canada's west coast, has bought four Tarsier radar units developed by British company QinetiQ following the Concorde crash at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport in July, 2000 which killed 113 people.

The disaster was blamed on a piece of metal that fell of another passenger jet, punctured a tyre and caused secondary damage.

The Tarsier, based on high-resolution millimeter wave radar, is able to detect material the size of a five centimetre (two inch) bolt to within three metres (10 feet), at a range of up to two kilometres (1.5 miles).

It can also tell if the item is made of metal, plastic, glass, wood or animal remains, said Craig Richmond, Vancouver International Airport Authority's vice-president of operations.

Once computer software identifies the item, a global positioning system is used to direct airport staff to its location to clean up the debris, he said.

Currently, checking for debris is done manually -- staff walk up and down runways with a broom and a dustpan. Prone to human error, the method is also time consuming and expensive if it delays incoming or outgoing flights, Richmond said.

Vancouver International airport hosted the first full trial of the Tarsier system in 2004. It has since been tested at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, London's Heathrow airport and at a US Air Force base in Texas.

Richmond said that during tests, the Tarsier detected flocks of birds and a plastic water bottle at night that was more than one kilometre (0.6 mile) away.

The system costs about 1.2 million US dollars but Steve Brittan, managing director of QinetiQ Airport Radar, believes it will become invaluable as the cost from debris damage and resulting delays around the world is about 4.0 billion US dollars a year.

"And, the safety of life argument is the most compelling (reason) of all," he added.

The radar system is part of a 1.2 billion US dollar expansion of Vancouver airport, which expects up to 100,000 people per day during the 2010 Winter Olympics and plans to upgrade facilities to accommodate the Airbus 380, the world's largest jumbo, by 2009.

In 2005, the airport expects 16.4 million travelers, rising to 21.1 million in 2010.