Airports Flock to Bio-Acoustic Technology

4 May 2010 (Last Updated May 4th, 2010 18:30)

Bird strikes pose a real and present danger to departing and arriving aircraft at airports worldwide. Alex Hawkes discovers how bio-acoustic technology can help airports disperse and control bird populations.

Airports Flock to Bio-Acoustic Technology

On 15 January 2009, a US Airways aircraft crash-landed into the Hudson River between Manhattan and New York after a flock of birds struck its engines. Although all 155 people onboard survived, the incident sent a sharp warning to the aviation industry on the dangers surrounding bird strikes.

The threat of bird strikes is most common in low altitudes of between 2,000ft and 3,000ft, so aircrafts are most at risk during take-off and landing. This means the impetus lies sharply with airports to deploy necessary bird management and control techniques to prevent future bird strike incidents.

A rather unique bird dispersal method can be found in the form of bio-acoustic technology, which broadcasts the distress signals of birds in order to deter them from an area.

The idea was first investigated by the UK Government in the 1960s and has since been pioneered by UK bird control and dispersal company Scarecrow Bio-Acoustic Systems Ltd.

The bio-acoustic technology specialist has seen business grow rapidly in recent years and its equipment is now installed in over 1,500 airports worldwide. Group commercial director Mike Ziolek says that in light of recent bird strike incidents, the technology has a proven track record in deterring a variety of different species.

"The threat of bird strikes is most common in low altitudes, so aircrafts are most at risk during take-off and landing."

"The near-disaster on the Hudson River last year highlighted the real danger bird strikes pose to aircraft. The general public is now aware that no airline aircraft is designed to withstand the impact of a flock of birds flying into its turbines," Ziolek says.

"Bio-acoustic technology is proven in dispersing birds. Each distress call is extensively trialled and verified by ornithologists before being released on our products. It is essential that birds perceive the distress call as natural, and so we pay special attention to replicating the natural volume and natural beginning of each distress call."

The Ultima solution

The company's latest bio-acoustic solution for airports, Ultima, is controlled by a tablet computer that provides a database of bird recognition information. An operator can use the touch screen to select prominent species in the vicinity, which then broadcasts distress signals through vehicle-mounted speakers. Using GPS technology, Ultima is also able to log a vehicle's operation time, date and positioning during the bird-dispersal process.

"The third generation of Ultima is currently under development and will be launched in coming months. We have expanded the product's GPS capabilities by adding an interactive mapping function, which allows an operator to generate a comprehensive visual report of the vehicle's time and location," Ziolek says. "We have also added a runway hazard-detection feature to help operators during the inspection process."

Ultima installation and the training of an airport operator typically takes between two to five days. Depending on the local ecosystem, airports generally request a dozen bird distress signals but more can be integrated onto one processor if required.

"The near-disaster last year highlighted the real danger bird strikes pose to aircraft."

Having installed Ultima in locations as diverse as Poland, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Australia, Scarecrow has compiled an extensive database of distress signals from birds all over the world.

"We now have distress calls available for all the most common species of birds worldwide. Obviously there are hundreds of different species of birds, but airports are often located in proximity to lakes and water, which encourages a certain variety of birds," Ziolek says.

"We have recently completed a project at Zia International Airport in Bangladesh. The airport had no previous bird control experience and we went in from scratch and installed the Ultima solution."

Taking control of an airport's bird problem

Airport operators are generally responsible for bird management and control in and around a site. For smaller regional facilities, however, fire services can often be placed in charge of dispersing birds, which is widely perceived as a safety issue.

With the UK Civil Aviation Authority reporting a total of 1,823 bird strikes in UK airspace during 2009, aviation governing bodies are unsurprisingly starting to take heed of the issue and place pressure on air operators to take action.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has, for example, published a set of standards and recommended practices (SARPs), which address the risk of bird strikes in the vicinity of airports. Although not binding, the SARPs recommend member countries to establish a national procedure for aircraft and airport personnel to record bird strikes. They also actively encourage airports to develop a bird control management plan (BCMP).

"A Canadian goose that hits an aircraft travelling 150mph can generate the force of half a ton."

Even today, bird control and management remains archaic in some parts of the world. Deploying dogs, birds of prey, and even guns to scare or attack nuisance birds is still common practice in some airport operations. Along with laser technology – which aims a bright laser beam at birds in order to scare them – bio-acoustic technology offers a distinctly more ethical approach.

"Our systems are often used in conjunction with more basic scare tactics such as implementing loud bangs. Bio-acoustic technology, however, is more proven than laser technology, which does not seem to be rated as highly," Ziolek says.

As a result of the Hudson River crash landing, one country that has taken notice of the technology in recent months is the US.

"Until recently, bio-acoustic technology had not been so widely adopted by airports in the US, but we have made great strides in the market with our partner Sherwin Industries. As well as wanting an effective means of dispersing birds, US airports want accurate data of where the birds are and where they are being dispersed to so if there is another incident, they have comprehensive data to rely upon," Ziolek says.

"A Canadian goose that hits an aircraft travelling 150mph can generate the force of half a ton. No commercial aircraft is designed to withstand that level of impact so there is definitely a strong incentive to install technologies such as the Ultima to combat the threat of bird strikes," Ziolek says.