Building Technologies

Watch: Autonomous Drones Divert Birds Away from Dangerous Airspace

30 August 2018

Birds have historically been a nuisance for airlines. One of the most memorable events to happen with birds interfering with planes was in 2009, when US Airways Flight 1549 had to land in the Hudson River when a group of geese ran into the plane and knocked out both engines. This isn’t just an isolated incident — between 1990-2013, 142,000 bird strikes destroyed 62 civilian airplanes, injured 279 people and killed 25 in the U.S. Researchers from KAIST, CalTech and Imperial College London have teamed up to create a method to divert birds away from airports with automated drones.

A drone approaches the herd with sufficient distance to induce horizontal deviation. Source: KAUSTA drone approaches the herd with sufficient distance to induce horizontal deviation. Source: KAUST

The team created the m-waypoint algorithm, which allows a single drone to herd birds away from airspace without breaking the flock’s flight formation. The algorithm allows a single drone to herd the birds. It was developed based on macroscopic properties of a flocking model and how the flock of birds will respond. The algorithm was tested by two drones diverting a flock of birds away from certain airspace over the KAIST campus.

"It is quite interesting, and even awe-inspiring, to monitor how birds react to threats and collectively behave against threatening objects through the flock," said David Hyunchul Shim, who leads the Unmanned Systems Research Group at KAIST. "We made careful observations of flock dynamics and interactions between flocks and the pursuer. This allowed us to create a new herding algorithm for ideal flight paths for incoming drones to move the flock away from a protected airspace."

Past methods to divert birds have been developed. One option is to take away the bird’s food source around the airspace. But this method disturbs the livelihood of the birds. Another method is to scare away the flock by using noise, like a loud horn. Placing predators near the airspace has also been tested. Ultimately, birds have proven too smart for these methods.

"I was amazed with the birds' capability to interact with flying objects. We thought that only birds of prey have a strong sense of maneuvering with the prey. But our observation of hundreds of migratory birds such as egrets and loons led us to reach the hypothesis that they all have similar levels of maneuvering with the flying objects. It will be very interesting to collaborate with ornithologists to study further with birds' behaviors with aerial objects," said Shim. "Airports are trying to transform into smart airports. This algorithm will help improve safety for the aviation industry. In addition, this will also help control avian influenza that plagues farms nationwide every year.”

To test the newly developed method, two drones were deployed above an area in KAUST campus and attempted to divert a flock of egrets. One of the drones was the herding drone, using the algorithm to attempt to divert birds. The other drone was an observer and surveillance drone that recorded the process.

The herding drone approached the flock from the side at different distances. When the birds spotted the drone, from any distance, they diverted their path. The further away the drone was, the less the birds adjusted their path. The flock flies much faster than the drones, so this interaction was only a few seconds long. But those few seconds were enough to divert the flock completely away from the dangerous airspace.

Professor Shim said: "I think we just completed the first step of the research. For the next step, more systems will be developed and integrated for bird detection, ranging, and automatic deployment of drones."

The paper on the flock diverting drones was published in IEEE Transactions on Robotics.

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