Debris clearance is crucial to prevent further casualties

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The Independent Online

With the recent crash of Air France Flight 447 on its way from France to Brazil, many will be getting nervous about the safety of the flights they are due to take over the summer months.

Adverse weather conditions and fear of engine failure are often the source of people’s apprehension. However few realise that foreign objects and debris left on airport runways pose a significant safety risk to aircrafts. This was especially evident in 2000 when Concorde crashed just minutes after take-off from Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, killing all 109 people on board and four people on the ground. The cause of the crash was originally thought to be an engine catching fire on take-off. However, in 2004, French investigators blamed the disaster on a strip of metal that fell on to the runway from a Continental Airlines DC-10. This was found to have burst the Concorde's tyres, which ruptured the plane's fuel tanks as they broke up.

As a consequence of the Concorde tragedy there was a call from the airline and airport industry to see if there were any technologies out there that could eradicate this problem. The Tarsier system we have developed has done just that.

The usual way that runways are inspected for any foreign objects or debris is by eye from a moving vehicle four times a day. However, this method is by no means ideal as it leaves large time gaps between inspections and makes it especially difficult to inspect runways at night. The system is basically a camera coupled with a radar system which works throughout the day and night. The radar sweeps the runway and looks for small changes to identify objects appearing. When an object is identified the co-ordinates are sent to the camera system, which accurately focuses in on the object and gives the human operator the opportunity to look at the debris and decide if he wants to do something e.g. whether to close the runway, or whether its debris that can be ignored. One of biggest challenges was to ensure the camera could operate 24 hours a day. We overcame this problem by developing a safe level laser to effectively turn night into day.

The system is extremely accurate in locating any debris that might be present on the runway and minimises the amount of unplanned runway closures. This in turn will minimise the disruption to flight schedules, especially important as we head in to a time of increased flight traffic over the summer months.

In two years in operation at Vancouver, Tarsier has found over 400 items, including several classed as "posing significant risk". It is a great example of engineers working with the airport and aircraft industry to bring about change in runway safety processes that had previously remained the same for 50 years.

Science and engineering play a key role in so many aspects of people’s lives, including aircraft travel and safety, as the "Science: So What? So Everything" campaign aims to show, and the work we do is yet another example of the important role science plays in dealing with the challenges of our times. We’re really proud to have been nominated as finalists for the Royal Academy of Engineering’s MacRobert award, the UK’s premier award for engineering innovation. We’ve worked hard to develop the technology to this stage and are very proud to have been recognised in this way.

It is important that in order to increase people’s confidence in aircraft safety, science and engineering continues to come up with ways to tackle potential issues quickly and effectively. It is by doing so that we will avoid a repeat of the fatalities suffered from Concorde’s flight in 2000 and ensure people’s faith in airport safety remains strong.

Graham Binns is Chief Engineer, Qinetiq, who have been nominated for the Royal Academy of Engineering’s MacRobert Award; the winner which will be announced this week.