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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 August 2005, 10:36 GMT 11:36 UK
Canada snaps up hi-tech radar
By Hai Le
BBC Science Unit

QinetiQ's Tarsier radar
The Tarsier has been tested in several airports
One of Canada's main airports is to install a sophisticated radar system that can automatically detect debris on the runway.

Vancouver International Airport has bought the Tarsier radar system produced by former UK defence research QinetiQ.

Debris on the runway is a pressing issue for airports, which was highlighted after the Concorde crash in July 2000, in which 113 people died.

Crash investigators believe a piece of metal on the runway might have caused a tyre to burst, flinging debris at a fuel tank and starting a catastrophic fire.

High fidelity

Currently, the airport staff check runways manually, but they can make mistakes in bad weather. Some debris can occasionally remain in the path of aircraft until the next scheduled check.

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The radar developed by QinetiQ has been tested at Heathrow in London, JFK in New York and Vancouver.

The Canadian airport has gone on to buy four Tarsier radar units, which it plans to install next year.

Tarsier radar works like a normal radar but uses a shorter wavelength, counted in millimetres instead of centimetres.

It helps to detect small objects from different materials, including metal, plastic, glass, wood, fibre glass and animal remains.

"The radar first of all provides very high fidelity information," explained Steve Brittan, Managing Director of QinetiQ Airport Radar.

"Instead of seeing a blob as you would do with older technology, you get a lot of information that can be constructed into something akin to an image," he told the BBC World Service programme, Go Digital.

"Computer software analyses the image that comes out of the radar to pick up the targets of interest and automatically alert the operator."

Using global position satellite (GPS), the ground staff can locate and remove any debris quickly from the runway.

Costly system

Concorde crash of 2000
It is believed that debris on the runway caused a tyre to explode
Vancouver International Airport Authority's Vice President of Airport Operations, Craig Richmond said that the system was so very sensitive that it could detect small objects on the runway.

In one demonstration, he could even find out "which way the lawnmower has cut the grass" alongside the runway.

However, the reassurance offered by a system to detect debris comes at a price, with the Tarsier system costing around $1.5m.

"You have to look at the overall value proposition," said QinetiQ's Mr Brittan.

"If you consider that the cost of damage to aircraft in the whole aviation industry, that's put at about $4bn per annum.

"The safety of life argument is obviously the most compelling of all."

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