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September 12, 2018

A Bizarre and Humane Solution for Bird Strikes

Bird strikes cost aviators and airline carriers an estimated $957 million per year in the United States. Since 1990, they have destroyed or damaged beyond repair 247 civil aircraft, from small planes like the one below, to large commercial airliners like US Airways Flight 1549, which struck a flock of Canada geese, lost all engine power, and was forced to make its famous landing in the Hudson River.

 

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Bird strikes have been a hazard since the earliest days of aviation. The first reported bird strike was by Orville Wright in 1905. Numerous low-tech, (low-effectiveness) solutions are in use across the globe to reduce the frequency of bird strikes, including:

– Shooting guns and cannons

– Playing loud noises on speakers

– Introducing predatory birds

– Eliminating crops and/or bodies of water frequented by birds around airports

To no avail.

So should bird strikes be regarded as occupational hazard, an unavoidable part of doing business in the skies? Perhaps not, thanks to a novel new strategy that’s coming from a surprising source: drones.

Herding birds with drones

To aviators, small lightweight drones are a threat. With almost seven million drones to be sold in the U.S. by 2020, the threat is only growing.

Yet a new study conducted by professors from KAIST, a leading research-oriented science and engineering institution in South Korea; Caltech, and Imperial College London suggests that drones could actually play a leading role in preventing bird strikes.

The professors made extensive observations of flock dynamics — specifically how flocks of birds respond to threatening objects, like noisy little drones — and used that information to design an algorithm that would allow a single autonomous quadrotor drone to herd a flock of birds in a prescribed direction without breaking their formation. Basically the study found out how close and how fast you could fly to a flock of birds without causing the flock to disperse, and how to reliably steer a flock of birds. As it turns out, most species of migratory bird (the type that poses the greatest threat to aviation) respond in similar, predictable ways to certain drone maneuvers.

The next stage of the study is to improve the drones’ flock detection system and its autonomous flight capabilities so they can automatically detect and herd flocks away from protected airspace with no human intervention required. We’ll stay tuned and keep you posted!

To learn the nitty gritty about how bird strikes affect commercial aviation, check out this awesome page from the FAA.

And if you liked this blog, don’t miss our blog on MIT’s inventive solution to airline lightning strikes!

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