Runway success

A runway debris detection radar system developed by QinetiQ has been bought by Vancouver International Airport.


The runway debris detection radar system developed by QinetiQ in the wake of the Paris Concorde crash has been bought by Vancouver International Airport (YVR). Known as Tarsier, the system can detect small items of potentially dangerous debris on airports runways and is expected to be installed at YVR early next year.


Four Tarsier radar units will be installed at YVR, covering the airport’s north and south parallel runways, each of which is approximately three kilometres long. A display unit, providing the Airport Authority’s operations team with an all-weather, round-the-clock runway picture, will be installed in YVR’s Operations Centre.


Debris on runways is an issue for both airports and airlines. The estimated worldwide annual cost of debris damage and delays is $4 billion and, in rare cases, debris damage has been known to result in loss of life. A small strip of metal on the runway was a major contributory factor in the crash of Concorde flight AF4590 on 25 July 2000 as it left Paris Charles de Gaulle airport.


The Tarsier system was developed by QinetiQ (then DERA) following enquires from British Airports Authority (BAA) and Vancouver International Airport Authority in the wake of the Paris crash. The system, based on high-resolution millimetre wave radar, is able to detect small, potentially hazardous objects on a runway, to within an accuracy of three metres at a range of up to two kilometres. The system is also able to detect a range of different materials, including metal, plastic, glass, wood, fibre-glass and animal remains.


Checking for debris is currently performed manually, which is time consuming, expensive and open to human error. It can take as long as 45 minutes to check a runway in between aircraft movements and this is particularly difficult in bad weather and at night. This can result in runway closures, delays in both arrival and departure slots and, most importantly, could potentially put passenger and staff safety at risk.


YVR hosted the first full trial of the Tarsier system at an international airport last summer. Potentially dangerous objects were detected and retrieved from the runway, by airport staff, in less than five minutes. A representative of the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) also attended the trial, resulting in a short trial at JFK airport in New York in November 2004.


A further evaluation is expected in the United States later this year. Another extended trial was conducted at London’s Heathrow Airport in October 2004.


QinetiQ is actively pursuing other applications for its millimetre wave radar, including perimeter security, surface movement tracking, runway incursion and bird detection.