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Logan Airport installs runway scanning system

Sensors mounted on both sides of Logan’s busiest runway detect debris almost instantaneously.
Sensors mounted on both sides of Logan’s busiest runway detect debris almost instantaneously.(CJ Gunther/Pool)

Logan International Airport has become the first airport in the country to implement a full-runway system to automatically detect debris that can damage planes and cause deadly crashes.

As part of a pilot program with the Federal Aviation Administration, Logan has installed 68 sensors along both sides of its busiest runway. The sensors, capable of detecting objects as tiny as an aircraft rivet, use cameras and millimeter-wave radar to find debris on runways.

The system has detected eight foreign objects at Logan since it started operating over the summer, including a fuel cap that fell off an aircraft. It also found 25 dead birds.

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Foreign object debris, known as FOD, has not caused any fatal accidents in the United States, but debris on the runway caused the 2000 crash of an Air France flight outside Paris that killed 113 people. As it neared takeoff, the Concorde hit a strip of titanium that had fallen off another plane, shredding one of the aircraft’s tires, which caused debris that led to a puncture in a fuel tank. The plane burst into flames and slammed into a hotel.

A plane landed at Logan on Friday; one of the sensors is seen on the bottom right.
A plane landed at Logan on Friday; one of the sensors is seen on the bottom right.(CJ Gunther/Pool)

Accidents aside, foreign objects cost the aviation industry $4 billion a year in lost productivity from damaged engines and aircraft taken out of service, according to Boeing Co., among the world’s biggest manufacturers of commercial jets.

Foreign objects — bits of shredded tires, nails, chunks of asphalt — are found on airport runways every day. The FAA has been exploring automatic detection systems for almost a decade. Currently, runways are inspected several times a day by airport employees who drive up and down slowly looking for objects.

Those manual scans will continue at Logan, enhanced by the automatic system, which can identify and locate objects almost instantaneously.

“Within minutes, even seconds, we’ll be able to respond,” Edward Freni, director of aviation for the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan, said at a press conference Friday.

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Massport is often at the forefront of aviation safety technology, previously working with the FAA to implement radar to reduce the risk of bird strikes and track locations of vehicles on runways.

“I was not surprised that we found a very willing partner in Massport to be on the cutting edge of this new safety technology,” Christina Fornarotta, associate administrator of airports for the FAA, said at the press conference.

Xsight Systems, an Israeli company with US headquarters in Boston, developed the rotating scanners, which are attached to runway lights and can scan an entire runway in 60 seconds. When it detects an object, the system alerts operators in the control tower, transmitting an image and showing its exact location using GPS.

The automated detection system on Runway 9/27 cost $1.7 million — $900,000 financed by an FAA grant. Logan hopes to install the devices on its three other major runways in the future.

Runways have to be closed to conduct visual inspections, and these manual scans detect less than 5 percent of runway debris, according to a 2010 report by the British strategy consulting firm Insight SRI.

“Think about nighttime, think about weather — it’s almost impossible to locate an FOD,” Alon Nitzan, chief executive of Xsight Systems, said in an interview.

Xsight detection systems are also running at airports in Tel Aviv and Bangkok, making Logan the third airport in the world to have them. Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris and Miami International Airport are expected to start using them soon.

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Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.