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   Vol. 14  No. 26
Monday March 23, 2015

Bird Strikes Labor For Answers

Bird Strikes Labor For Answers

     Technology has given aviation so many things. Today, more people can fly than ever before, in larger, quieter planes with all the luxurious amenities of the 21st century—telecommunications, Internet, personal TV screens. So much is available in-flight, it’s almost hard to see further ahead in time, to imagine what else might be possible.
Bird at airport     Paradoxically, the business of flying still faces some age-old problems that seem so simplistic in nature it’s difficult to comprehend why we haven’t yet solved them. Most frighteningly, bird strikes.
     The most visible and perhaps most famous bird strike occurred six years ago, on January 15, 2009, when a flock of Canada geese were ingested in both engines of US Airways Flight 1549 as it debarked LaGuardia Airport in New York City. Thanks to the quick thinking of Captain Chesley Sullenberger, the 155 passengers on board were spared when he expertly ditched the Airbus 320 into the Hudson River.
Unfortunately, bird strike incidences are more common than one might think. According to the FAA, “wildlife strikes have killed more than 255 people and destroyed over 243 aircraft since 1988.” The threat of birdstrikes is only growing, due to “increasing populations of large birds and increased air traffic by quieter, turbofan-powered aircraft.” Between 1990 and 2013, there were 142,603 strikes, with strikes increasingly “6.1 fold from 1,851 in 1990 to a record 11,315 in 2013.” During that same time period, “503 species of birds, 42 species of terrestrial mammals, 19 species of bats, and 15 species of reptiles were identified as struck by aircraft,” with “waterfowl, gulls, and raptors” dealing the most damaging strikes.

     Thus far, methods to deal with birdstrikes have fallen woefully short of technological advancements.      While Occam’s Razor surely applies in most cases, when dealing with birdstrikes, the simplest method has often proven ineffective. The ground up approach is quite popular, with airports removing ponds and seed-bearing trees to discourage foraging animals, which in theory should discourage their predators (i.e., raptors). According to an article in USA Today, Salt Lake City International Airport effectively replaced 1 million square feet of grass with gravel to create an inhospitable zone for small creatures.
     “The idea behind that is removing the prey base, particularly the rodents that attract large-body raptors,” says Gib Rokich, Salt Lake airport's wildlife manager. “It goes all the way down to midges to grasshoppers to army worms.
     “I look at it as a restaurant — we've had a terrific restaurant here for raptor food. The diners include red-tailed hawks, Northern Harriers, Peregrine falcons, barn owls, and great-horned owls.
     “They readily came here to eat to their heart's content. We're trying to close the restaurant,” says Rokich.
     Salt Lake City also employs pigs, which destroy nesting habitats and feast on fowl eggs. “The pigs work great,” Rokich says. “The gulls see the pigs on the island and relocate elsewhere.”
     Southwest Florida International Airport went a step further and began employing dogs to ward off the wading birds attracted by rainwater pools that form on the airport’s flat terrain. Sky the Border Collie lives with airport handlers and works seven days a week, scouring areas too dense for vehicles and humans. Whereas previous methods included various noisemakers like ‘shell crackers’ (fireworks blasted from a shotgun) and ‘screamers’ (bottle rocket-like devices fired from a pistol), Sky is a deterrent to which the birds simply cannot grow accustomed.
     “The dog is a natural predator—they never get used to her,” said James Hess, airside operations supervisor for Southwest Florida International.
     It’s clear that this supposedly simple problem requires more than a simple solution, and that is where technology enters the conversation. According to an article in The Economist, “the air forces of several countries have used radar to track birds” for over a decade. Fortunately, the methodology employed by the military sector is now being considered for civilian airports.
     Yossi Lesham of Tel Aviv University in Israel combines several modes of observation to gather information on flocking birds. Through a mix of drones, powered gliders, ground-based bird watchers, and radar, Dr. Leshem was able to decipher radar blips and identify them ornithologically. His system can identify and follow “individual birds that weigh as little as ten grams and are as far away as 20km.” His work has inspired others to track birds via radar, and equipment has been developed for the purpose. Canadian firm Accipiter Radar Technologies created the eBirdRad radar unit, which can track over 100 targets all at once at a range of at least 11km and up to an altitude of 1km. The eBirdRad system is currently being tested at “JFK Airport in New York, O’Hare Airport in Chicago, and Seattle-Tacoma Airport in Washington state, in an experiment run by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and sponsored by the FAA,” according to The Economist. Similar systems are being developed worldwide, but there seems to be a troubling resistance and reluctance to adopt the radar method. Dr. Lesham believes the reluctance is due to “bureaucratic inertia.” American firm DeTect created “Merlin,” a radar detection system currently installed at various American air force bases as well as several bases worldwide.
     DeTect’s General Manager Gary Andrews thinks the reasoning against radar is slightly more sinister.
     According to The Economist, he believes the USDA is threatened by radar systems because they are paid by local authorities to control birds by traditional methods. This, despite the USDA itself recommending “new technologies such as the use of bird-detecting radar…should be pursued more vigorously.”
     If bird strikes are as great a threat to air travel as they seem to be, it shouldn’t matter how we rid ourselves of this avian problem, only that we do so, and quickly. Later we can think on the irony of these beautiful animals—how they began as the source inspiration for our journey to the skies, and rapidly became a deadly obstacle to our flight.
Flossie Arend

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