Moving towards unmanned runways

Unmanned runways – we are not yet there, but on the way. Many tasks on busy airport runways are being taken from humans and given to robots or, in the wider sense, to technology.

The FODetect foreign object debris (FOD) detection system was developed by Israeli company Xsight and has become operational at Boston Logan International airport, the first in the US to use an automated FOD detection system.

According to the company, this project is the result of a competitive process and years of work with the US Federal Aviation Administration and Massport. The system is installed on runway 09-27, the busiest departure runway at the airport, and is now in full operational use.

FOD refers to any misplaced object found on airport surfaces that can damage aircraft, engines, tyres or fuselage. FOD presents a risk to passenger safety, disrupts airport services, and leads to repairs totalling billions of dollars for airports and airlines each year.

The Israeli company’s system is now capable of tracking and reducing ground-level avian-related threats.

Bird strikes cost the aviation industry hundreds of millions of dollars a year. The FAA receives more than 9,000 reports of bird strike incidents every year.

More than 40% of all avian-related incidents occur on the runway, and 44% of the most damaging bird strikes happen on the ground.

The Israeli company says that BirdWize detects birds in real time, in inclement weather and in all light conditions – a major advantage since more than half of all bird activity on runways occurs at night.

And Xsight is not alone. Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) has developed TaxiBot, a semi-robotic pilot controlled vehicle, to transport airplanes from the airport gate to the runway.

This system has been developed by IAI in co-operation with Airbus, TLD, Siemens, Lufthansa, Ricardo and many others.

According to IAI, the worldwide taxiing cost in 2020 is estimated to exceed $8.5 billion per year. IAI claims TaxiBot has the potential to reduce it to less than $3 billion per year.

TaxiBot entered an advanced testing phase in July 2012. According to IAI, during the tests, in France, results exceeded the system’s predicted performance.

Tests of a narrowbody TaxiBot on a Lufthansa Boeing 737 for certification are under way in Frankfurt.

So, unmanned systems have moved from the skies to the ground, to the runways. There are signs that this is only the beginning.

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