Boston airport unveils debris-detection system

BOSTON — A new automated system to detect debris on airport runways has been installed on a runway at Boston’s Logan Airport, the first in the U.S. with the technology that officials said would help prevent costly damage to aircraft and potentially save lives.

Officials from the Federal Aviation Administration, airport owner Massachusetts Port Authority and developer Xsight Systems, an Israeli firm with U.S. headquarters in Boston, unveiled the $1.7 million FODetect system Friday. FO stands for foreign object.

The system was installed on one of the airport’s busiest runways, officials said, and will enhance the existing practice of airport personnel manually checking for debris several times a day.

Small sensors mounted on runway light fixtures continually scan the runway for debris, which can include dislodged airplane parts, chunks of asphalt and other objects, said Christa Fornarotto, associate administrator of the FAA. Video cameras transmit the image to airport personnel that can identify the debris and determine if it warrants immediate removal.

“You can clearly visualize how great a safety improvement this is,” said Fornarotto.

Runway debris can lead to damage totaling billions of dollars for airlines and airports each year and, in rare cases, serious accidents, officials said.

The deadliest accident on record linked to airplane debris occurred in Paris on July 25, 2000, when a metal strip that detached from a Continental Airlines plane fell on a runway at Charles de Gaulle airport and punctured the tire of an Air France Concorde. Bits of rubber from the tire punctured the Concorde’s fuel tanks and caused the plane to crash shortly after takeoff, killing 113 people.

Fornarotto said she was not aware of any fatal accidents involving major airlines in the U.S. linked to runway debris.

Miami’s airport has accepted a grant and could be the next major American airport to deploy the system, she said.

“We are very optimistic that other airports around the country will adopt this technology,” said Alon Nitzan, president and chief executive of XSight.

The company has installed similar systems at Charles de Gaulle and at airports in Tel Aviv and Bangkok, Nitzan said.

In a demonstration staged for reporters, a piece of a lighting fixture that had been placed on the Boston runway was pinpointed by the sensors and removed by an airport staffer.

Edward Freni, Logan’s aviation director, noted that the airport would still be required under federal regulations to conduct manual checks in which vehicles slowly ride down runways and check for debris.

“What this system does is enhance that in real time,” Freni said. “If something is detected in the system, we can respond immediately.”

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