Bird hazard: laser-like focus on flock pit woes

Friday, September 4, 2015

Green lasers usually associated with thoughtless attacks on aircraft may be put to beneficial use by Australian airports as a way of controlling bird and wildlife hazards around runways. Brisbane Airport is talking with police and regulators about using the lasers to disrupt the flight paths of birds.

The technique has been successfully adopted overseas and Amsterdam’s Schiphol International Airport has used it to change the flight path of birds such as geese so they no longer cross the airport. One problem in Australia, however, is that the use of lasers in the vicinity of aircraft is illegal.

“There’s a bit of management we have to do there with the authorities just to make sure that we’re doing this for safety reasons,’’ said Brisbane Airport operations manager Stephen Goodwin. “But talking with the regulator and police, we think we can trial it.’’ The move would add to a tool kit that includes pyrotechnics, dogs, noise and landscape design as ways of preventing birds getting near aircraft.

The Australian Airports Association, which supports the laser push, yesterday released a new paper on managing bird strike risk around airports, which identifies the 12 main culprits in terms of bird most frequently struck and those which cause the most damage.

At the top of the list, prepared in consultation with the Australian Transport Safety Bureau and risk management firm Avisure, are kites, bats and flying foxes, lapwings and plovers, and galahs. Bird strikes remain the most common aviation problem at Australian airports and the ATSB received more than 14,500 reports of incidents between 2004 and 2013. Many of these involved larger commercial aircraft. Aircraft and jet engines are ­designed for the possibility of bird strikes and manufacturers shoot dead chickens at engines to test their resilience.

But there have been incidents where bird strikes have seriously or fatally disabled an aircraft, the most famous of which involved a US Airways Airbus A320, which lost both engines after multiple hits in 2009 but managed to ditch on the Hudson River. Australia’s worst bird strike occurred in ­September 1977, when an RAAF F-111 conducting low-level exercises was struck by three pelicans. One of the birds penetrated the cockpit, preventing the crew from safely ejecting, and both were killed.

The presence of birds and flying foxes near airports is a persistent problem and the ability of birds to adapt has led to the emergence of complex programs to dissuade them from sticking around. At Brisbane Airport, this has ranged from using car horns, pyrotechnics and trained dogs, to draining areas where water pools, landscaping and the use of short grasses in which birds are unable to hide. The extent of the science ­behind bird management is underscored by a program with the University of Queensland to introduce microbes into the soil to kill spiders on which birds feed.

“That’s been a big success,’’ Mr Goodwin said. The airport also spent about $4m to redesign an area where water was pooling and added the inert type of grass unattractive to birds. Mr Goodwin said these changes and a combination of methods for harassing birds had reduced the rate of confirmed bird strikes per 10,000 aircraft movements from 4.327 in fiscal 2009 to 2.954 last financial year. High risk strikes had more than halved from 0.712 per 10,000 movements in 2009 to 0.313. The airport noted there were different combinations for different birds and there were staff ­dedicated to bird harassment.

“It took a while to figure out what combination works on an ibis, what works on plover and on an egret — and they are different,’’ he said. “We’ve made them into SOPs (standard operating procedures) now and that’s what the guys follow.’’

Avisure managing director Phil Shaw said changes over the years had included the species presenting the most risk. “Flying foxes have become probably No 1 where in the past it was probably the kites, the raptors,’’ he said. “That’s lot to do more with changing aircraft movement patterns, so we’re flying more night time flights into regional (destinations), particularly in the north of the country.’’ Mr Shaw said habitat management was an important facet of bird and wildlife control. Magpies were particularly territorial and it was better leaving adults in place that were used to the airport environment. “A juvenile or young one, you’d want to move him on or in some last resort cases, actually undertake lethal control,’’ he said. “And airports do that. That’s one of the permissions they’re granted because of the significance of the strike risk.’’

Published in The Australian