When the Air France Concorde Flight 4590 was taking off from Charles de Gaulle International Airport in July of 2000, it ran over a piece of debris that had been left on the runway by another plane. That incident caused the tire to rupture, sending pieces of itself flying into the underside of the Concorde. This in turn caused a fuel tank to rupture, the escaping fuel to catch fire, and ultimately led to the crashing of the airliner ... If there's one thing that this event proved, it's that debris on the runway can be dangerous. While human crews do already manually check for such debris, German scientists have created an automated system that they claim should do a better job.
The debris sensor system is being developed by scientists at the Fraunhofer Institutes for High Frequency Physics and Radar Techniques FHR and for Communication, Information Processing and Ergonomics FKIE; the University of Siegen; PMD Technologies GmbH; and Wilhelm Winter GmbH. The project is called LaotSe, which stands for "Airport runway monitoring through multimodal networked sensor systems" (in German).
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The system would consist of a number of weatherproof sensors, which would be located along the sides of the runways. Each sensor would incorporate an infrared camera, optical 2D and 3D cameras, and networked radar sensors. The radar would scan the runway surfaces continuously, and would be able to detect objects even in the fog or the dark. It can't classify them, however, so when an object was spotted by radar, the cameras would be instructed to take a closer look in order to possibly identify it. All of the data would then be combined using custom software, to produce a "situational overview." If that overview indicated that something potentially hazardous was out there, the control tower staff personnel would be informed, and they could investigate.
Each sensor would be capable of scanning 700 meters (2,297 feet) in all directions. Things such as birds or wind-blown garbage would not set them off, as objects would have to remain stationary for a set amount of time before being reported.
Presently, most airports use human crews to look for debris, who regularly drive up and down the runways. Some airports do use other types of radar-based sensors, but according to Fraunhofer, these can only detect metal objects and are vulnerable to damage, as they are mounted on top of tall masts.
Testing of the system is planned to start this fall at Germany's Cologne-Bonn airport.