Autonomous drones could be used to keep birds away from planes at airports, preventing them being sucked into plane engines and striking windows.
Drones are normally unwelcome at airports (in the UK, for example, pilots now face five years in jail if they fly too close to one), but researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have built an algorithm that will enable a single autonomous drone to 'herd' birds out of harm's way.
Current methods of minimizing bird strikes include making airports less appealing to birds by removing cozy nesting sites and plants with edible seeds, and using trained falcons or hand-piloted drones to scare them away.
Unfortunately, all these approaches are expensive, and the manually controlled drone risks scattering the flock if the operator can't predict the birds' behavior.
The researchers' new algorithm builds a dynamic model of the birds' flocking behavior and enables the drone to manage the flock as a single entity without making the birds panic – much like herding sheep with a dog, but in three dimensions rather than two.
The researchers say they were inspired by the incident in 2009 when US Airways Flight 1549 hit a flock of geese shortly after takeoff and lost all engine power. The pilots managed to avoid tragedy by making a difficult emergency landing on the Hudson River.
"It made me think that next time might not have such a happy ending," said the project's chief investigator Soon-Jo Chung. "So I started looking into ways to protect airspace from birds by leveraging my research areas in autonomy and robotics."
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