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Bird-herding drones could make air travel even safer for people and birds

Bird-herding drones could make air travel even safer for people and birds
[Photos: Aaron Burden/Unsplash; Jan-Niclas Aberle/Unsplash]

Air travel is very safe–unless you’re a bird.

Bird strikes, which is the fancy way of saying a dang bird hit your airplane, are very common occurrences, happening every single day, despite pilots’ efforts to “not hit the birds.” The FAA recorded some 13,688 instances of birds hitting planes in 2014 alone. These occur during landing about 60% of the time, according to the FAA, with another 37% of wildlife strikes occurring during takeoff and climb. Bird Strike Committee USA estimates that the collisions cause more than $650 million in damage to U.S. civil and military aircraft every year. In 2015, the FAA estimated that bird strikes caused a minimum of 69,497 hours of aircraft downtime for planes.

This is all to say that bird strikes are a big deal for airlines, pilots, airports, and, of course, the birds themselves. Since the FAA requires wildlife mitigation around airports, companies have come up with all sorts of interesting options for scaring birds away from airports–sonic screens, lasers, bird spikes, bird traps, bird glue, specially trained falcons, and all kinds of other bird deterrents.

Now there’s a new weapon–bird-herding drones.

In a recent paper in IEEE Transactions on Robotics, which was unearthed by MIT’s Technology Review, Caltech researchers tested using drones to herd birds. They created software based on a sheep-herding algorithm that could autonomously control a drone—and it worked. In fact, the team was able to herd flocks of dozens of birds with only one drone.

Who knows? If they are able to bring the drones and their software out of the lab and into the market, this could save a lot of planes. And even more birds.

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