San Diego Business Journal

TREX ENTERPRISES CORP.

CEO: Ken Tang.

Revenue: Undisclosed.

No. of local employees: 85.

Investors: Undisclosed.

Headquarters: Sorrento Mesa.

Year founded: 1978, as Western Research Co.

What makes the company innovative: Adapts millimeter wave radar to detect foreign objects on airport runways.

Trex Enterprises Corp. has turned a standard Ford Motor Co. pickup truck into a pilot’s best friend.

It has done so by adding radar equipment and specialized software, then mounting a powerful vacuum cleaner at the truck’s rear bumper.

Airport staff can use the homely looking machine to find and retrieve foreign object debris, aka FOD. In aviation lingo, FOD is junk on the runway — stray bolts, concrete chunks and other debris — which can jab into tires or be sucked into jet intakes. In worst-case scenarios, FOD incidents can cripple aircraft and kill people. The crash of an Air France Concorde jet on takeoff in 2000 resulted from a chain of events which started when an aircraft part, left on the runway by another jet, punctured one of the supersonic craft’s tires.

The incident killed all 109 people on the plane and four on the ground.

FOD and bird strikes cost airlines an estimated $21 per flight or 12 cents per passenger, says Washington, D.C., consulting firm Insight SRI Ltd. in its report “Runway Safety: FOD, Birds and the Case for Automated Scanning.”

With its potential for causing havoc, the people who run civilian and military airports spend a lot of time in the unglamorous exercise of scanning the ground for FOD. Traditional methods rely on people visually inspecting the surface of a runway.

The San Diego company’s machine, called the FOD Finder, adapts Trex’s millimeter-band radar to do a sweep of the runway in a fraction of the time of a visual inspection. “The radar itself can paint an image of the surface,” said Grant Bishop, chief operations officer for Trex Aviation Systems, while demonstrating the system at the company headquarters on Sorrento Mesa.

Trouble Spots

In the truck’s cab, a computer screen shows the driver a satellite photo of the airport. If the truck-mounted radar detects anything suspicious on the runway, the software marks the location with a red dot. The system operator can take the truck to the scene and drive over the offending item, where a vacuum system plucks the item off the runway.

The FOD detection machine can also be mounted on a tower next to a runway. Of course, that version would come without the vacuum attachment.

FOD Finder has been used at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, Marine Corps Air Station Yuma and McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad.

Finding a Following

Officials at the Marines’ Yuma base are looking at FOD Finder with interest, Bishop said. While base officials work to keep the airfield clean, the desert environment has little ground cover to keep pebbles or sand in place, said Greg McShane, the field’s operations officer. Trex’s machine retrieved 937 pieces of FOD during two days of tests, McShane said.

Trex is also looking into foreign sales. Bishop was in China this month, trying to drum up business.

Airport operators aren’t the only ones to take notice of FOD Finder. Last month Connect, the San Diego organization devoted to growing new technology businesses, gave the device its annual Most Innovative New Product Award in the category of aerospace and security technology.

Trex builds the FOD Finder through its Trex Aviation Systems subsidiary. It assembles the radar in Massachusetts and does final integration in San Diego, Bishop said. It also maintains a call center here.

The machine costs $400,000, he said, adding that airports can lease it for $12,000 to $15,000 per month. Bishop said airports often see a return on their investment in less than 60 days.

The technology can also be brought into war zones to keep military airfields clear of debris, said Bishop, a former Air Force pilot who has flown fighters in combat.

Trex’s competitors include the British defense contractor QinetiQ, Stratech Systems Ltd. of Singapore and Xsight Systems Ltd. of Israel.

Trex is pushing its FOD Finder software in new directions. Among them: computer-assisted help in compiling airport inspection reports mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration. Bishop said it simplifies a paper reporting process, in the same way Quicken software from Intuit Inc. simplifies accounting tasks.

Trex was founded in 1978 to pursue work with President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, the anti-missile effort dubbed “Star Wars.” Based in San Diego, the company has offices in Hawaii, Massachusetts and New Mexico. Its total employment is 185 people.

The business’s other specialties include wireless networks, video sensor chips, optical networking and security products. A Trex venture called Ophthonix Inc. specializes in digital eye exams.