QinetiQ’s FOD detection technology implemented at Heathrow

Heathrow’s permanent dual radar system will further improve safety on the congested tarmac, replacing manual runway inspections that are difficult to perform in bad weather and at night.

Heathrow’s permanent dual radar system will further improve safety on the congested tarmac, replacing manual runway inspections that are difficult to perform in bad weather and at night.

QinetiQ has made a significant leap towards solving some of the problems faced by airports handling high passenger flow, while trying to improve efficiency and crucially, safety. London Heathrow is following the successes of Vancouver and Dubai airports with the Tarsier system. Since February, two radars have been fully operational on the southern runway, where they have played a pivotal role in maintaining safety on the tarmac. The contract between QinetiQ and London Heathrow follows a successful evaluation period last year.

The system combs the length of the runway 24 hours a day and pinpoints potential foreign objects and debris (FOD) that could damage aircraft systems, or obstruct engines; anything from wildlife carcases to litter and vegetation, said Walker. It is an investment that is becoming more important for congested airports like Heathrow, which now operates at 99% capacity. Heathrow’s northern runway is currently going through installation and is expected to be fully operational by the end of this year – a further development in BAA’s drive to deliver an improved service to the 68 million passengers passing through the airport.

As Walker explained, Tarsier significantly improves operational efficiency, particularly when compared to manual inspections. “The system is many times better than the low-tech approach of simply driving down the runway looking for FOD through the window. The standard is for airports to carry out four runway inspections a day, which means that a given area is being inspected for less than 1% of this time. The Tarsier system makes that a constant check, which brings a level of certainty that ensures the runway is safe and ready for use,” he said.

Further improvements

Although Tarsier has been specifically developed as a FOD detection radar, in an important development, QinetiQ has enhanced the system with the addition of a high resolution day and night camera, due to be phased in at Heathrow early next year. The camera will be particularly useful during hours of darkness, when debris is difficult for even the trained eye to pick up. “The radars give a point on a screen, whereas the camera provides the visual as well. It’s very helpful to airside operations to have this extra element to assess the risk and decide what course of action to take,” said Walker.

Responding to the ways in which further airport safety initiatives should be developed, Walker commented: “The challenge facing the aviation industry in the context of collaborative decision-making is getting the right information to the right people at the right time, to ensure the airport remains safe and efficient.” Competitive practice is a key component to raising the profile of technologically driven airport safety measures, admits Walker. “Tarsier is not the only system in the market – the regulators and customers want to see choice in this area. Competition is healthy in any market, and actually adds to the momentum of adoption; regulators themselves too say it’s a good thing,” he said.

EUROCONTROL has completed the first stage of its 12-month study, looking at developing performance standards for FOD detection systems, and in the US the FAA is evaluating Tarsier along with a number of other systems. Future implementation is expected to further improve operational safety at airports using the technology. Walker added: “We are keen that this type of technology is adopted widely – particularly for the bigger capacity-constrained airports. I think FOD detection systems will be much more common in the next three to five years. We are working very hard and making a lot of progress in the Middle East and Europe.”

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