Beginning this month, a flapping-winged drone will become the first UAV in the world tasked with the job of scaring off birds from runways at an international airport. The Robird, which mimics the flight of a real falcon, will patrol Canada's Edmonton International Airport daily, chasing away seagulls, Canada geese and starlings that gather in flocks and pose a hazard to planes landing and taking off.
"The last thing airports and airlines want are for birds to down a plane and put people in harm's way," says Jordan Cicoria, co-founder and managing director of Aerium Analytics, the Calgary-based company that will operate the Robird, as well as other drones designed to survey and map the airport landscape.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), wildlife strikes have destroyed more than 247 aircraft and killed more than 262 people globally between 1988 and 2015. In 2015, 13,795 wildlife strikes to aircraft were reported to the FAA, with 96 percent of them caused by birds. The cost to the industry is enormous. Airlines lost $229 million in revenue and repairs in 2015 because of shattered cockpit windows, gashes in aircraft fuselages, damaged wings and disabled engines.
The most famous of these incidents occurred on Jan. 15, 2009, when US Airways Flight 1549 struck a flock of Canada geese three minutes after takeoff from New York City's LaGuardia Airport. Pilots Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles glided the plane into the Hudson River and all 155 passengers were rescued. The 2016 movie "Sully" starring Tom Hanks dramatized the event and brought the reality of bird strikes into the public eye.
To address the problem, airports have enlisted a range of tactics to reduce collisions. Many aircraft have lighting systems to detect birds. Airports have adopted scare tactics, such as firing off propane cannons or other noisemakers, training dogs to chase the birds away, straining fish out of local waterways or filling nearby ponds with floating balls to discourage waterfowl from lingering. Some alter the local habitat to make the area less appealing. For example, they might crop field grass to very short lengths or use a grass seed mixed with a fungus that birds and insects find unappetizing.
Some solutions work better than others. But birds are smart, says Cicoria, and they adapt to changes and also become habituated to scare tactics that don't threaten their lives. The wildlife management team at Edmonton International Airport has tried some of these strategies, including using noisemakers, trapping and relocating birds, and enlisting a falconer to come on weekends with peregrine falcons and Harris's hawks trained to chase away birds. But with a golf course, landfill and several bodies of water nearby, gulls remain a problem. Migrating birds, like geese, also present an issue, especially during March and November when enormous flocks are moving south or north.
Enter Robird. It was conceived of 14 years ago by Nico Nijenhuis, while he was a studying applied physics and fluid dynamics at the Technical University of Twente in the Netherlands. Eventually he started up the company Clear Flight Solutions and is now its CEO. The avian UAV has been used to chase away birds from blueberry fields and landfills and to prevent them from nesting on offshore oil and gas platforms as well as on cargo containers near shipping ports, but this is the first time it will be used at an airport.
"To now officially start integrating our operations at a major Canadian airport is absolutely fantastic," Nijenhuis said in a press statement.
The Robird weighs just 700 grams (about 1.5 pounds), including the battery, and has a flying time of around 15 minutes. Like a real falcon, the Robird flaps its wings to stay aloft.
"In order to be effective, it had to look as close to a bird's natural predator as possible," said Cicoria. "Birds respond to the silhouette of whatever is flying in the air, and they respond to the flapping. By mimicking that, you make it much more effective." See for yourself in the video:
According to Canadian law, two pilots must work as a team to fly the Robird — one operates the UAV using a handheld controller and the other observes the airspace and listens to the air traffic control broadcast. The drone's operational range is 2 kilometers (1.2 miles), but because of airport regulations, the Robird has to remain visible to both pilots at all times.
Each morning, the pilots will meet with the airport's wildlife management team to establish a strategy for the day. A computer program tied to the Robird by a wireless signal allows the operators to establish a boundary with a specific width and height. The so-called geofence is essentially an invisible cube meant to contain the drone in a specific area. If it flies beyond the boundary for some reason, the program automatically shuts off the controller, puts the drone on autopilot and returns it to the approved airspace.
For now, one Robird will patrol the 7,000 acres (2,833 hectares) of land that comprise Edmonton International Airport. As it does, it will chase off birds, and in doing so, begin to establish a kind of predatory range, like a real falcon, which will discourage new birds from getting too comfortable. That could reduce damage to aircraft, to people and ultimately, save birds from themselves.