19 February 2008

Keeping an eagle eye on runway debris

Changi Airport Air Traffic Controller

I don't suppose anybody really thought about the problem of runway debris till we all witnessed those terrible iconic video clips of the doomed Air France Concorde climbing away from Paris CDG airport in July 2000, with a huge tail of flames. As we know now the crash was caused by a metal strip lying on the runway which flew up and punctured a fuel tank.

And it wasn't a one-off incident. If you've seen any episodes of the tv documentary 'Airport' you'll know how much continuous time and attention the airside operations staff at Heathrow spend, running around in their yellow Landrovers checking the runways for the slightest sign of debris...in between scaring off birds.

The fact is, despite the well-ordered, strictly governed, high maintenance, standards of civil aviation....bits and pieces - from tiny to quite large - are always dropping of aeroplanes!

And their potential for harm is enormous. So I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email from Singapore's Changi airport this morning, telling me that they have completed a 15-month trial using a system called iFerret by Stratech Systems Ltd which automatically scans runways looking for FOD - Foreign Objects and Debris.

The system uses vision technology to detect and identify foreign objects on runways and pinpoint their exact location, on a 24-hour basis. It can then raise immediate alerts, enabling operators tovisually assess the object on a remote screen display without having to physically visit the runway. They can then take immediate action to clear the FOD if necessary.

Objects of various shapes, colours, materials and sizes – such as nuts, bolts, golf balls and paper cubes – were used in the trial, to test the system’s ability to detect and verify the presence of FOD.

The system was able to reliably detect foreign objects left on the runway surface down to 2cm in size from 300 metres away, under clear weather conditions.

It was also able to operate under day and night conditions, and accurately identify FOD despite the presence of environmental factors such as aircraft movements, ambient lighting, shadows, clouds or rain. It was able to detect FOD as small as 4cm in size under 16mm/hr of rainfall.

Excellent news!

Changi say they are now going ahead on installing a full iFerret system which should be operational in early 2009.

My only slight concern is that Stratech Systems have the slowest website I've ever encountered (could just be that the news triggered thousands of visits and overwhelmed the server..... possibly) so let's hope they are not using the same technology on iFerret, cos frankly it would be quicker to have a man walk down the runway after each take-off!

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