January 13, 2014
Credit: Abusa Photo/Newscom File Photo
Honeywell has successfully tested a radar technology for low-cost solutions to the costly problem of “ramp rash,” the collisions between aircraft wings or other parts with other aircraft, vehicles or obstacles.
While the avionics company has not publicly divulged any new products, details of ground anti-collision systems have emerged in several recent patent applications and a 2012 request the company made to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to clarify or change its rules on the use of unlicensed radar in the 76-77-GHz band. The FCC allows automobile manufacturers to use the band for front-, side- and rear-facing “field disturbance monitors,” or millimeter-wave radars, for cars, but the technology is prohibited for use by aircraft on the ground or in the air. The FCC also allows the technology to be used for stationary foreign object debris (FOD) radars at airports.
In a December 2012 letter to the FCC, Honeywell requested that the agency review the rules to allow aircraft on the ground to use the technology. This followed on-aircraft tests made possible by an experimental license from the FCC, tests the company says confirmed the feasibility of using automobile-type radar co-located with wingtip navigation lights to detect obstructions and intruders. Honeywell demonstrated the project to airframers and airlines, which, given the magnitude of wingtip collision problems, are very interested in the technology, depending on the price. For Honeywell, the possibility of using a mass-produced sensor would help lower the costs for such a system compared to other types of radar, including pulsed and phased array.
“Wingtip collisions are a priority issue because of the enormous impact they have on air traffic operations and the frequency of such occurrences,” Honeywell wrote in the FCC letter. The Flight Safety Foundation in 2012 quantified the extent of the problem: Ramp accidents occur at a rate of one per 1,000 departures and cost the global airline industry $10 billion annually, including direct costs from damage as well as indirect costs from aircraft being out of service, public image problems and incident investigations.
The most recent high-profile ramp accident involved a British Airways 747-400 that ripped through the second story of a brick building at South Africa's Tambo Airport last Dec. 22. Other recent events include an Air France A380 clipping the tail of a Comair Bombardier CRJ700 at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport in April 2011; an Airbus A380 demonstrator striking a building while trying to park at the Paris air show in June 2011; and an Eva Air Boeing 747 freighter's wing hitting an American Eagle ERJ140 at Chicago O'Hare International Airport in May 2012.
Following the O'Hare accident, the NTSB recommended that the FAA require manufacturers to install an anti-collision aid “such as a camera system” on all factory-built large aircraft “and other models where the wingtips are not easily visible from the cockpit to provide a cockpit indication that will help pilots determine wingtip clearance and path during taxi.” The recommendation noted that since 1993 the NTSB had investigated 12 accidents that occurred during taxi, when a large airplane's wingtips collided with another airplane or object on the taxiway.
The FAA responded that while a camera system may provide “a small benefit” at very low speeds, the two-dimensional image and limited field of view “make it unlikely that wingtip cameras would provide a measurable reduction in wingtip collision incidents at normal taxi speeds.” It also asserted that the benefits would not “justify the cost burden of an FAA mandate.” The NTSB, which had asked for a broader look at technologies other than camera systems, closed the recommendation in July but with a status of “Unacceptable Action.”