FOD Fighters

Rebecca Douglas
Published in: 

Vancouver Int'l uses the radar and video-based Tarsier system from QinetiQ for automated FOD detection.

Just as foreign object debris and damage (FOD) come in many shapes and sizes, so do the programs airports develop to battle them. Vancouver International Airport was the first commercial airport in the world to address the issue with high-resolution radar and video cameras that are able to shoot day and night.

Finding FOD of a "significant nature" about a decade ago inspired the airport to boost its detection capabilities. "It was the kind of FOD that could have presented a high hazard to aircraft operations," recalls Brett Patterson, director of airside operations. "We figured there had to be some technology out there that could help."

FODspot by Xsight

Eventually, there was. After working for years with QinetiQ on the development of millimetric wave radar detection, Vancouver International became the first airport to operate the company's Tarsier system in late 2006. The British Royal Air Force served in a similar capacity on the military side.

"Without automatic FOD detection, we were blind to FOD between periodic inspections of all operating surfaces," Patterson relates. "Our goal is to maintain a sterile operating environment all the time."

With the Tarsier system, radar in towers stationed on the airport's north and south parallel runways provide all-weather FOD surveillance 24/7 on 100% of runway surfaces, he explains. Fully 70% of the surfaces have redundant coverage where the two radar systems overlap.

When the radar detects debris, an alarm sounds in the operations center and begins a log of the event. The suspected item and its specific coordinates are displayed on an overview map of the airfield and the cameras zoom in to provide a live image of the suspected FOD. If system operators deem the item a possible threat, a team is dispatched to retrieve it. The entire event, including retrieval, is recorded.

According to the airport's records, the Tarsier alarm sounds less than two times per day, per runway. One in four alarms result in retrievals; the other items detected are transient in nature, such as birds or grass clippings.

"Most people would shudder at how often we find FOD," acknowledges Patterson. "But the truth of the matter is, they have just as much FOD; they just don't know about it."

The Price of Protection

Outfitting a single runway with two antennas currently costs about $3.5 million (U.S.), not including pre-installation infrastructure costs, notes Patterson. The benefits, he adds quickly, are numerous.

FODetect by Xsight integrates surface detecting units into elevated runway/taxiway edge lights or employs them as standalone units.

FOD retrieval times at Vancouver International have been slashed from nine to five minutes - an especially valuable improvement at an airport that managed 258,000 aircraft take-offs and landings last year. "The retrieval vehicles have GPS, and the coordinates of the FOD come right up on the screen; so they know right where to go," explains Patterson. "It's so accurate - plus or minus three meters at a distance of 1,500 meters - that you have to be careful not to park right on top of the item you're looking for."

Before adding the Tarsier equipment, locating FOD for retrieval took much more "fishing around," Patterson recalls. "A pilot would detect something shiny while landing, and we'd have to find it. With runways that are 200 feet wide and two miles long, that could take awhile."

Now, the system's radar automatically pinpoints such items. "They can detect the smallest shards of rubber from a tire blowout or even a thick blade of grass if it's facing the right way," reports Patterson.

Adding the night/day cameras to the system last year proved to be a game-changer because they allow operators to distinguish detected items. A two-inch worm doesn't prompt immediate removal, but a similar size piece of metal does.

Solving Mysteries

The Tarsier system also supports the airport's policy of tracing the source of FOD to prevent repeat appearances. Patterson points to aircraft fuel caps as a prime example. "Before, we'd find a fuel cap during a periodic inspection, and 50 to 100 aircraft could have come and gone since the last inspection, so we didn't know whose cap it was," he relates. "With the radar, we're alerted almost immediately and we can have a conversation with the correct airline."

According to Patterson, it's important to leverage FOD findings constructively. When an aircraft tool was collected as FOD, for instance, an ownership stamp made it easy to track down the aircraft maintenance engineer who lost it. "We didn't present it to him as punishment, but as an educational opportunity," explains Patterson. "He really took the whole thing to heart. He ended up briefing his company about the dangers of FOD and the importance of checking that every tool is in its place after finishing a job."

Airfield maintenance crews have changed their mowing procedures after the Tarsier system detected clumps of grass being left on runways. "It's not a high-risk item, but it's one we can eliminate," notes Patterson.

On the more significant end of the spectrum, FOD record logs also provide data to the airport's wildlife management team - specifically what birds are at the airport and when they're on the move. "It's a big part of the overall safety program," he says.

Operational Impact

About a year of active prep work was necessary before the Tarsier system began operating. Vancouver International managed the front-end civil engineering, according to specifications provided by QinetiQ. In addition to standard elements such as running electric and communication cable to the site, the airport added substantial tower footings to compensate for poor soil, notes Patterson.

Survey crews from the airport and QinetiQ mapped the site to determine the tower height and location for optimal detection. After QinetiQ erected the prefabricated towers, it took months to position and calibrate the radar systems to cover the crowned runways. Integrating the system into existing airport operations and developing procedures for answering the alarms took another few months. "We wanted to give operators plenty of experience with the system before it went live," recalls Patterson.

After a full year of experience with radar detection and video verification, the airport is collecting data that may eventually affect its operational procedures. "In another nine months, we'll be able to evaluate whether we want to continue our current practice of holding departures and discontinuing arrivals for all FOD," reports Patterson. "The system might help us move to a more dynamic risk assessment mode, with different procedures for FOD right in the touch-down zone vs. something on the last 200 feet of pavement. A shiny object that could attract birds may get faster action than a lower-risk item. Right now, though, we're still collecting data."

More Methods

Although it's arguably the star, the Tarsier system is just one element of Vancouver International's overall FOD program. In May, about 150 volunteers performed a pre-dawn manual sweep of the runways and grounds at the airport's 18th annual FOD walk.

Beyond the physical benefit of having that many eyes and hands on the job, Patterson values the awareness the event creates. "It's part of a spring cleaning campaign," he explains. "Before and after the walk, everyone's FOD efforts are a little more acute."

To sustain awareness, staff members distribute hats and other promotional items with an iFOD logo to anyone "caught" preventing FOD. The airport also posts FOD bins at the bottom of airstairs and throughout the gate areas. "The easier it is to dispose of FOD, the more likely people are to pick it up," reasons Patterson. "And diligence on the apron prevents FOD from migrating to the taxiways and runways."

Periodic audits of collected materials help identify FOD sources. Patterson credits a distinct lack of everyday trash in the audits to the airport's safety officer, David Larrigan.

"David built our FOD culture," he explains. "His military background and work with Transport Canada brought an appreciation for FOD walks and helped deliver the message that FOD detection and prevention is everyone's responsibility."

Larrigan is also a contributing author of Make it FOD Free! The Ultimate FOD Prevention Program Manual.

Other High-Tech Options

Changi Airport in Singapore uses iFerretTM by SITA, a tower-based detection system that falls under the electro-optical category of FAA Advisory Circular 150/5220-24 on automatic FOD detection.

The system uses high-resolution cameras that adapt to changing light and environmental conditions - technology the company refers to as "intelligent vision."

SITA cites detection rates of up to 96.6% for iFerret and notes that it's scaleable to cover entire runway/taxiway areas or individual parts of them.

The Massachusetts Port Authority recently selected FODetect for installation on all runways at Boston Logan International Airport. The system, which integrates surface detecting units into elevated runway/taxiway edge lights or employs them as standalone units, has already been installed at Side Dov Airport in Tel-Aviv, Israel - a pilot the manufacturer, Xsight, dubbed a success.

The system uses millimeter-wave radar and optic sensors with near infrared illumination to detect FOD on airfield surfaces and provide situational awareness of vehicles, etc. Utilizing the power and data infrastructure already in place for airfield lighting helps minimize installation costs, notes Xsight.

The company's more recent release, FODspot, is based on the live video feed principles developed for FODetect, but is designed for quick deployment at airfield intersections and other FOD hot spots. Xsight promotes FODspot as a low-cost alternative for select locations, but notes that it can be expanded to cover full runways and larger areas.

A major international airport in Europe is currently evaluating FODspot, reports Xsight marketing communications manager Alma Book.

Both it and FODetect are eligible for Airport Improvement Program and Passenger Facility Charge funding, adds Book.

Honolulu International Airport opts for the mobile detection capabilities of the FOD Finder(tm), a vehicle-mounted radar system by Trex Enterprises. The system detects items approximately 200 meters in front of the vehicle it is mounted on, and can operate at speeds up to 30 mph, says the company.

FOD Finder is marketed to airports that want to reduce debris hazards associated with construction projects and includes video recording capabilities for recordkeeping and documentation purposes.

O'Hare International Airport in Chicago is currently testing the FOD Finder.

Another Tack

Lambert-St. Louis International Airport prefers lower-tech methods - a strategy that has apparently served it well. "We've never had a serious FOD incident," reports Bill Korte, assistant director of operations and maintenance.

Closing a runway to sponsor a FOD walk during the National Aerospace FOD Prevention conference in August was a literal representation of Lambert's focus on the human element of FOD detection. A diverse group of representatives from aircraft manufacturers, FOD equipment producers, airports and U.S. military branches walked shoulder-to-shoulder on Lambert's Runway 11-29 searching for any item that could disrupt operations or damage aircraft. In total, 65 to 70 conference attendees participated, after being cleared in advance for access to the aircraft operations area. Canine units were also deployed to sniff the buses they arrived on, and airport personnel escorted them during the event.

A TYMCO 435 is one of seven sweepers Lambert-St. Louis uses to clean FOD from its aircraft operation areas.

While similar FOD walks occur each month on ramp of the Missouri National Guard, they're used less frequently on the commercial side at Lambert - typically after special events and construction projects that could increase the potential for extra FOD. Much more common are regularly scheduled visual inspections by operations staff: one during the day and another at night.

"Nothing beats having people out there with their eyes on the pavement," says Korte. "We're looking at higher tech systems, but Missouri is the 'show-me' state. We want to see how they work at other airports first."

Maintenance employees supplement the official inspections made by operations staff. "They're all trained in FOD awareness and cleanup, so as they're mowing the grass or doing other work, they're looking for FOD, too," he explains. "At any given time, there are 12 maintenance guys out there on the lookout."

Korte cites long-standing relationships with airline personnel as another crucial human element in fighting FOD. "Creating awareness and communicating about the issue is very important," he comments. "If they see a piece of concrete on the ramp, we need to hear about it so we can look for the break and patch it promptly. Everyone has to work together."

Lambert's mechanical method of choice is sweepers, and it maintains a fleet of seven vehicles for the aircraft operations area - three various models from Johnston, two Isuzu units, one from Freightliner and a TYMCO 435. "They run 24/7," reports Korte. An eighth unit from Madvac is used to sweep the airport's parking garages and loading docks.

On a strategic level, Korte is glad to see increased industrywide awareness of the connection between wildlife management and FOD risks.


Sweepers are also the top choice at Arlington Municipal Airport, a two-runway airfield in Washington State serving a diverse mix of general aviation traffic that includes gliders, ultralights, helicopters and sport aircraft. With about 135,000 annual flight operations, its FOD equipment includes a street sweeping vehicle the city maintenance department handed down to the airport and a series of brush-lined mats that are pulled behind a pickup truck with a standard hitch.

FOD*BOSS mats are pulled behind pickup trucks.

Hands down, airport supervisor Dale Carman likes the FOD*BOSS mats.

"The FOD*BOSS is fast. It covers a wider area (about 24 feet) when all three mats are used at once, so we're off the runways sooner."

The equipment's manufacturer, Aerosweep, quotes cleaning rates of 3 million square feet per hour, at speeds up to 25 mph. Employees at Arlington Municipal usually run at about 10 mph, reports Carman.

With 8,800 linear feet of asphalt runways to clean, crews typically run the FOD*BOSS mats on most of the flight areas every two weeks. The sweeper vehicle is used on airport roadways and parking lots once a month. It's also used on the crosswind runway that was recently slurry sealed. "The mats could tear it up," explains Carman.

The normal sweeping schedule is accelerated during construction projects, before the airport's annual fly-in and whenever traffic peaks or FOD is noticed in between regular sweeps, notes Carman. For safety purposes, employees operating the sweepers use two-way radios to stay in contact with spotters.

After rocks, stones and pieces of pavement, screws and bolts are the most common items found - a condition Carman attributes to the airport's sizable home-built population.

Given the airport's enthusiasm about the FOD*BOSS, it has already budgeted $20,000 to replace the mats that were purchased with the entire system in 2006 for $21,700. "They're beginning to show wear," Carman says matter-of-factly.

New mats are simply part of the airport's overall Zero FOD plan - a philosophy it shares with many of its counterparts, including large airports employing higher tech and more expensive detection systems.


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