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

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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