03 robotic falcon

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CNN  — 

Airplanes and birds have been sharing the skies since the first ever flight back in 1903.

However, to say this has led to some issues, particularly over the last few decades, is something of an understatement.

Collisions between birds and aircraft are the cause of thousands of bird deaths every year.

Such incidents, known as bird strikes, can also result in aircraft damage, as well as delays and cancellation of flights, costing the International Civil Aviation Organization a reported $1.4 billion each year.

Airport wildlife management teams currently employ a number of deterrents, such as drones and birds of prey – including falcons – to try to scare birds away from the airport surroundings. However, breeding and training falcons isn’t exactly cheap, and the birds can be difficult to manage.

But could a robotic peregrine falcon developed by the University of Groningen in the Netherlands be the solution?

Highly effective

RobotFalcon has been developed to help prevent bird strikes.

Made from fiberglass and Expanded Polypropylene (EPP), the RobotFalcon, which has a wingspan of 70 centimeters, mimics the movements of the large and powerful falcon, and has proved to be highly effective at keeping birds away in a recently published study.

Controlled from the ground, the bird has a propeller on each wing and a camera fitted on its head to allow for “first-person view while steering.”

During a series of tests carried out in 2019 in the area surrounding the city of Workum in the Netherlands, the RobotFalcon managed to successfully deter all flocks from fields within five minutes of starting its flight, with 50% of the sites cleared within 70 seconds, according to Rolf Storms, one of the authors of the report.

When compared with a drone, the RobotFalcon, which has a weight of 0.245 kilograms (around 0.5 lbs), was found to be the superior of the two, with the drone only managing to clear 80% of the birds in the same amount of time.

“There is a need for novel methods to deter birds,” reads the report published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.”And we show that the RobotFalcon can make a major contribution to filling that niche.

“It cleared fields from corvids, gulls, starlings and lapwings successfully and fast, with deterred flocks staying away for hours.

“The RobotFalcon was more effective than a drone: Its success was higher, and it deterred flocks faster.”

As for comparisons with an actual bird of prey, the authors noted that the RobotFalcon was a “practical and ethical solution” with the “advantages of live predators but without their limitations.”

However, the report does goes on to recognize that there are also limitations with the RobotFalcon, pointing out that it needs to be steered by trained pilots, while flights cannot take place during rain or strong wind conditions and are also limited by its 15-minute battery life.

Successful deterrent

The RobotFalcon, which has a wingspan of 70 centimeters, mimics the movements of an actual falcon.

It also notes that the bird was not as effective when it came to deterring large birds, like geese or herons, and a bigger robot resembling a bird such as an eagle may need to be developed for this purpose.

“Over the course of the fieldwork, the reaction of the birds (measured by the distance at which they initiated flight, the flight initiation distance) did not change,” Storms tells CNN Travel.

“This can either indicate a lack of habituation of birds or be caused by us deterring new naive birds each day due to the turnover of the bird population. Regardless, it shows that the method remains effective over prolonged periods of time.”

Storms went on to suggest that airports and airbases should consider using the RobotFalcon alongside existing deterrence methods “for the highest effect.”

This isn’t the first time a robotic falcon has been designed to deter birds from the airport environment.

In 2017, Canada’s Edmonton International Airport became the first airport in the world to integrate a full suite of unmanned aerial system service into its daily airport operations when it trialled the CFS Robird, designed by Netherlands-based company Clear Flight Solutions.

News of this latest study comes after a bird strike resulted in a United Airlines flight bound for Miami International Airport returning to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport shortly after takeoff earlier this month.

In a statement released after the October 14 incident, the airline confirmed that the Boeing 737-900 had landed safely and a new aircraft was assigned to the flight.

There were more than 17,000 wildlife strikes at 753 US airports in 2019, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The FAA has a Wildlife Strike Database tracking the incidents, which have been on the rise in recent years, increasing from around 1,800 in 1990 to 16,000 in 2018, according to the database.

“Expanding wildlife populations, increases in number of aircraft movements, a trend toward faster and quieter aircraft, and outreach to the aviation community all have contributed to the observed increase in reported wildlife strikes,” the FAA site says.

Pilot Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III famously landed US Airways Flight 1549 on New York’s Hudson River in 2019 after both of the plane’s engines were taken out by a double bird strike.

Top image credit: R.F. Storms

CNN’s Howard Slutsken, Marnie Hunter and Sara Smart contributed to this report.