QinetiQ tests radar system that detects runway debris

 - December 10, 2007, 12:27 PM

Foreign object damage could one day disappear, thanks to technology developed in the UK. A high-precision millimeter wave radar built by researchers at QinetiQ (pronounced ki•ne•tic) has demonstrated its ability to detect objects as small as a two-inch-long steel machine bolt as it lay on a runway surface 1.24 miles from the radar.

QinetiQ, a commercial development entity founded in 2001 when the UK privatized a major part of its Defence Evaluation Research Agency (DERA), has since become that nation’s largest independent science and technology company.

The agency’s research on the detection of hazardous runway debris for the Royal Air Force began long before QinetiQ was founded, but the crash of the Air France Concorde at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport in July 2000 accelerated the pace of the firm’s research. (The takeoff accident occurred when a Concorde tire blew out after it struck a thin titanium strip, roughly 15 by 2 inches, that might have fallen from a Continental DC-10 that had departed minutes before. Debris from the tire slammed into the SST’s fuel tank, causing a massive leak that was ignited by compromised wiring in the landing gear. The airplane became unflyable and crashed.)

In developing the radar concept, DERA researchers used replicas of the strip as their target yardstick and eventually could detect it on a runway surface one mile from the radar. As they refined the radar, they added a GPS sensor, which extrapolated the precise position of the object and displayed this information in the airport tower and, via a radio link, to the driver of the runway patrol vehicle. (Under ICAO standards, runways at commercial airports must be inspected for debris every six hours.)

Last year, the Vancouver, British Columbia, Airport Authority evaluated the radar and confirmed the system’s performance, although on some early test runs the crews of the runway patrol vehicles were unable to see the test object when they reached the indicated GPS position. On these occasions, closer examination of the area showed it to be under the vehicle.

Vancouver officials are negotiating with QinetiQ to purchase four systems, called Tarsiers, to cover its two main parallel runways. Individual systems would be situated to cover each end of a runway and overlap in the middle. A fifth system might be added for the airport’s crosswind runway. The aim is to have the systems operational by late this year or early next year.

Craig Richmond, the authority’s vice president of airport operations, noted that while he and his staff follow technology developments closely, they would normally not purchase equipment until it had proved itself operationally at other large airports. “But the Tarsier demonstration here convinced us that we shouldn’t wait–it’s that good.”

A Tarsier radar is under evaluation at London Heathrow International Airport, and the FAA planned to evaluate the system at New York John F. Kennedy International Airport last month.