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."
The Trouble With Runway Debris
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."
Even Patterson admits that the Concorde incident is not likely to happen again.
"Certain things all aligned themselves to make that incident happen," Patterson said. "Would it ever happen again? Probability says no."
He added, "We're being proactive instead of reactive, which is nice."
Using Technology to Detect Debris
Until now, the aviation industry has relied mostly on airplane crews reporting debris and on workers combing the runways to spot items that shouldn't be there.
Casey said debris most frequently is found around a ramp as opposed to on a runway, and if debris is spotted on the runway, airports are extremely careful to clear the path.
"Most of the events that I'm personally familiar with are caused long before a plane gets to the runway," he said, adding, "If there's rubber lying out there and they know it, they're not going to land anymore airplanes, in my experience."
While catastrophic accidents related to runway debris may be few and far between, some say the money spent on fixing planes' wear and tear makes debris detection efforts well worth it. A report on the cost of foreign object debris from consulting group Insight SRI found that debris costs $1.1 billion in direct maintenance costs -- such as repairing damaged engines or tires -- for commercial jet traffic at the largest 300 airports per year. It finds that indirect costs, like delays and fuel inefficiencies, multiply that number by ten.
"All the little nicks and things, that reduces the fuel efficiency which, of course, is a huge item right now," DeSpain said. She added that today's congested runways and frequent takeoffs make it more and more difficult to clear runways efficiently.
Along with the high-tech camera system that will be set up along Chicago runways, other technologies also are in various phases of their 12-month testing period in the U.S. Test sites were chosen based on locations where researchers will be able to study how the technologies fare in inclement weather.
In Providence, officials started testing millimeter wave radar technology mounted to the tower last summer, and that technology has already detected a piece of runway debris that fell off an aircraft, according to Patterson. In Boston, testing began in May on a radar system that provides real-time alerts and images to the control towers. Chicago will soon put to use both the high-tech cameras and a mobile radar unit attached to the roof of a truck.
Patterson said all of the technologies are able to rule out the aircraft and understand that they are not debris as they scan the surface.
Other airports around the world also are starting to rely on the new technology. Like Providence, Vancouver International Airport in British Columbia, Canada, also has a radar system mounted on the tower that was put in place several years ago. After evaluating Stratech's system for 15 months, Changi airport in Singapore announced February that it would purchase the system, and is now in the process of installing and covering two runways with 24 cameras.
Patterson hopes the evaluations in progress in the U.S. will help the aviation industry learn more about various technologies intended to make runways safer. With improved capabilities to detect runway debris, he said it may even be possible to create a database that tracks debris that's been found on the nation's runways.