On dark nights at Singapore's Changi airport and Chicago's O'Hare airport, Jim Patterson and Ed Herricks couldn't believe what they were seeing. Far away, they were using what Patterson calls "gee-whiz technology" to spot 4-centimeter targets they would never have been able to detect with the naked eye.
"We were finding black golf balls that were set out on a runway about 1,500 to 1,700 feet away in the middle of the night," said Patterson, an airport safety specialist with the Federal Aviation Administration, who is managing a research project to spot runway debris.
Today, the FAA, technology companies and the University of Illinois' Center for Excellence for Airport Technology, are collaborating to test technology at several U.S. airports that they hope will better detect debris on runways. They are using advances such as millimeter wave radar and high-tech cameras with impressive zoom and night vision capabilities to spot what's known in the industry as foreign object debris, or FOD, on runways.
New technologies will get tested in Chicago by the end of the summer. Testing already is under way at Rhode Island's Providence and Boston Logan airports, as well.
"This is going to make the airports more safe, and it will save the operating costs," said Monique DeSpain, vice president of U.S. operations at Stratech Systems Inc., the maker of the high-tech camera system on tap at O'Hare. "The airline industry is interested in keeping FOD damage down because of the expense to the engines. So, they're going to protect their aircraft and keep the fuel efficiency up and protect the passengers, because these do cause catastrophic accidents."
Whether it's a shred of rubber from a blown-out tire, a bird carcass or a tool that a mechanic left behind, debris left on airport runways has the potential to cause a major problem. Luckily, aviation experts say that doesn't happen very often.
But one notable exception -- the crash of a Concorde jet in Paris that killed 113 people -- still hits home. Investigators blamed the 2000 crash on a piece of titanium on the runway, saying it sparked the explosion.
"As the Concorde taught us, it only takes the wrong thing at the wrong time and you have possibly a very major accident," said Capt. Jack Casey, now a technical pilot for Embraer, a Brazilian aircraft manufacturer, after 35 years of experience in commercial aviation. "One of those is one too many."
Still, Casey said problems caused by runway debris are "a relatively rare occurrence."
Aviation safety consultant John Eakin, president of Air Data Research, similarly called the Concorde crash "the ultimate debris mishap," but said he doesn't think debris is a major problem.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, there have been no fatal accidents in the United States involving commercial planes from foreign object damage during the last decade. Eakin said categorizing near-misses is trickier.
According to his research, there were 287 FAA reports from the last 10 years of landing/takeoff collisions categorized as "other." Eakin found that, according to 2007 and 2008 data from the NTSB database, there were 190 reports of ground collisions with an object, but Eakin added that the object was rarely the cause of the problem.
"I don't think it'd be one of my priorities," Eakin said. "There are bigger problems, let's put it that way."