This Automated “Sheepdog” Drone Herds Birds Away From Planes To Prevent Dangerous Collisions

A flock of birds flies worryingly close to a plane landing in Prague. Bird collisions with aircraft engines can cause fatal crashes. Rebius/Shutterstock

An international team of engineers and robotics experts have created an automated drone that gently herds birds away from planes as they arrive and depart airports – a technology that could save both human and avian lives and substantial amounts of money if adopted by the airline industry.

According to a 2015 study, planes colliding with individual birds or flocks costs global airlines about $1.36 billion per year in both damage to aircraft and expenses from rescheduling flights and compensating passengers.

And as the infamous 2009 US Airways Flight 1549 demonstrated, feathered creatures may seem small and delicate compared to a commercial passenger plane, but they can inflict sizable damage. During that event, a flock of Canada geese took out both engines shortly after takeoff from New York City, so pilot Sully Sullenberger performed an emergency landing in the Hudson River.

"The passengers on Flight 1549 were only saved because the pilots were so skilled. It made me think that next time might not have such a happy ending," principal investigator Soon-Jo Chung, an associate professor at CalTech and a JPL research scientist, said in a statement. He notes that the current methods from deterring birds from airports and the surrounding area (locations where planes fly at low altitudes and are therefore more likely to run into birds) involve modifying the environment to make it unappealing, keeping trained falcons to scare the birds off, or having staff operate remote-controlled drones. But these techniques are unsustainably expensive, unreliable, or both.

“So I started looking into ways to protect airspace from birds by leveraging my research areas in autonomy and robotics."

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