Runway Debris Will Not Go Unnoticed

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.

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