Device Clearing Runway Debris Designed to Save Billions

New technology that scans airport runways for debris received U.S. approval as part of an effort to save the aviation industry billions of dollars a year in aircraft damage.

The system monitors a 7,000-foot 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 today. 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.

“The constant safety checks going on 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, according to France’s Bureau of Investigations and Analysis.

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.

Costs Shared

The Boston system made by closely held 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, according to an agency press release.

“They can sit in the tower and see what is really going on 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 typically drive the length of the landing strip.

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

$5 Billion

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, Jenny Duncan, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

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, according to an agency fact sheet.

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 Center of Excellence for Airport Technology, in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, said in an interview.

Increased Efficiency

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 announced 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 that 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.”

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