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

Aliyah Kovner 08 Aug 2018, 22:21

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."

Chung partnered with Imperial College London aeronautics researcher Aditya Paranjape to develop a mathematical model of birds’ flocking dynamics; i.e., how the responses of individuals to their surroundings, potential threats, and the actions of their flock mates shapes the movement of the group as a whole. From there, the team programmed an algorithm that generates ideal flight paths for a drone to “herd” birds away from an aerial area without touching the animals or harming them by breaking up the flock.  

In their paper, published in IEEE Transactions on Robotics, the team tested their so-called sheepdog approach on two flocks of looms and egrets in Korea.

One herding drone was successful at keeping the flocks away, but experiments with larger flocks revealed that a multi-drone approach may be more effective; something that the team will examine in future studies.

Thankfully, even if Chung and Paranjape’s technology is still a ways away from real-world application, the risk of catastrophe from bird strikes is low. Between 1990 and 2015, nearly 161,000 bird strikes occurred in the US. Of these, only 40 (0.025 percent) resulted in an accident. Planes have been designed to withstand bird collisions (apparently they are even tested with cannon-like devices that launch chicken carcasses at high velocity), and even if one engine gets disabled after sucking in an unlucky avian, dual-engine aircraft can be piloted with just one.

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