Bird strikes are a serious threat to aviation, on the ground as well as in the air, since flying animals can damage engines and other plane parts.
Radars that detect airborne animals have been around for a while, but it was only this month that a U.S. airport installed a system that can detect wildlife and other debris on the ground.
And it's on the runway that a lot of the damage happens — including 41% of bird strikes, according to an FAA report.
Debris on the runway can have horrific consequences as well. In 2000, an errant metal strip caused an Air France Concorde to crash, killing all 109 people on board and 4 on the ground.
And when it's not deadly, runway debris causes about $4 billion in aircraft damage every year, the FAA says.
The standard operating procedure for checking runways for debris and wildlife (deer, alligators, and turtles can cause trouble, too) has long been to send a worker in a vehicle to look around once in a while.
"That's a process that was set tens of years ago when air traffic was less busy," Arik Fux said in an interview. Fux is the VP of Operations in the U.S. for Xsight, the company that created the foreign object debris (FOD) system that's now in use at Boston's Logan Airport.
Xsight began developing its FOD system after the Concorde crash, and offers what Fux called a "full runway management solution." Nearly 70 electro-optic and radar sensors now line runway 9/27, Logan's busiest. They can scan the runway in 60 seconds, and find debris as small as an aircraft rivet. When it detects something, is sends an alarm message to an operator, along with a video image so the debris can be removed.
Airports are responsible for keeping runways clear, so it's not hard to get them interested, Fux said. "It's an easy pitch because were preaching to the choir in terms of the need for such a system," he said. The fact that the FAA covers about 75% of the cost of installation makes it even easier.
The Xsight system at Logan cost $1.7 million to install; the FAA paid $900,000 of that.
Pricing depends on the length of the runway, naturally. Logan's 9/27 is shorter than most, and $5-6 million is a good ballpark for longer runways, said Fux.
Xsight is not alone in this field. The FAA has evaluated systems from three other companies, but Xsight's FOD is the only one in use at a U.S. airport. "We feel very comfortable where we are in the quality and value of our system," Fux said.
The FAA is now working to install an FOD system at Miami International Airport in fiscal year 2014, and Xsight is in the running. Even if it doesn't get the contract, Fux said, it's a sign the market is moving forward.
And if things work out there and in Boston, it — and everyone else — could reap the benefits.