The bird, apparently a female falcon, wheels into view 100 feet over Edmonton International Airport, flapping her wings — hunting behavior. She pursues a flock of starlings, which scatter into the safety of the woods. The falcon is majestic, graceful and resolute. She is also a machine — a battery, sensors, GPS, barometer and flight control computer stuffed into a falcon-shaped, hand-painted exterior. A human on the ground controls her wings.
The Robird patrols the skies around the airport, in Alberta, Canada. Her mission is to mimic falcon behavior in order to head off a serious threat to aviation: the bird strike, which happens when a bird or flock collides with an airplane. The Robird doesn’t actually catch any prey. Its job is to alert birds to the presence of a predator, herd them away from the airport, and teach them to prefer a less dangerous neighborhood. Small birds do little damage to a plane, even if they are sucked into an engine (“ingested” is the aviation term). But a large bird, or sometimes a flock of small ones, can bend or break engine blades. In the worst case, big birds knock out two engines, leaving zero. As the world knows, a flock of Canada geese disabled both engines of a US Airways jet in January 2009. Capt. Chesley Sullenberger’s Hudson River landing — it was the right plane, right pilot and right circumstances — saved all 155 people aboard.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, United States civil aircraft suffered 142,000 bird strikes between 1990 and 2013. Gerald Skocdople, chief pilot for the 737 at Canadian North Airlines, said that bird strikes vary with routes and time of year — “in Canada in the middle of the winter it’s not too big of an issue.” He estimated that at Canadian North, about one flight in a thousand strikes a bird. In the vast majority of cases, passengers won’t even notice. “The bird is usually the one that’s going to be on the losing end of that,” said Jul Wojnowski, a wildlife specialist at Edmonton airport. Few strikes are big enough to damage planes. In the United States, those 142,000 strikes destroyed 62 planes, injured 279 people and killed 25. Skocdople said that Canadian North has had three “catastrophic engine damage incidents” from large birds in the last 16 years. All the planes landed safely. But during the times of the year when birds migrate, you think about them all the time, he said.
Birds prefer flat, open spaces where they can see predators — and that’s an airport. They also like farms and water — which often abut airports. Since birds hang out relatively close to the ground, the risk of bird strike is greatest at takeoff and landing — just when they’re also most dangerous. “Altitude is golden,” Skocdople said. “If you’re up high, the flying speed is faster, but it gives you more options.”
Airports have many ways to reduce the risk of bird strike. They try to prevent birds from coming in the first place: rid the surrounding area of crops that birds eat and can harbor small animals. Airports also scare birds away, often with things that go boom, such as propane cannons that produce startling explosions. Edmonton uses cannons and fireworks, said Christopher Chodan, a spokesman for the airport. But birds are smart. They quickly realize that scare tactics are a bluff. Buzzards will sit on the cannon, fly up when they hear the telltale sign it’s about to go off, and then resume sitting, said Robert Jonker, operations manager at Clear Flight Solutions, the Netherlands-based company that built the Robird. “They will very quickly habituate to a threat.”
Edmonton airport has also used live falcons to scare away birds. But falcons need care and feeding, they can’t work all day, and they can’t herd birds to where you want them. And even the best-trained falcon is still a wild animal. There’s always a chance a falcon can push birds into the path of a plane — or go there herself. And, sadly, airports kill birds. Since the Miracle on the Hudson, New York City airports have killed more than 70,000 birds, according to an Associated Press investigation.
The Robird posed a huge engineering challenge. Falcons flap their wings when they hunt. If they’re not flapping, they’re not hunting — and therefore, not scaring away their prey. Soaring doesn’t do it. But how do you get a machine to mimic a falcon flapping its wings? The Robird depends solely on flapping its wings for propulsion. This was the original plan of the Wright brothers — wisely abandoned in favor of fixed wings and propellers. Jonker said he worked on the Robird for 13 years — “and then I stopped counting” — to get the right flex and lift to copy the particular wing motion of a peregrine falcon.
That raptor was chosen because many birds instinctively fear it. Kevin McGowan, an ornithologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, said that the peregrine is not large enough to be a reliable threat to Canada geese and other very big birds. Jonker, however, said that at Edmonton, the Robird was able to reroute migrating geese. And he’s developing a mechanical version of the super-predator, a bald eagle — a bird whose size poses another set of engineering difficulties.
Jonker and others who work on the Robird caution that it is unlikely to ever become an airport’s sole method of bird control. But they claim that it is likely to be a particularly good one: Because birds are hard-wired to fear raptors, they won’t habituate to the Robird. McGowan said that might not be completely true. “The closer you get to the genuine article, the better,” he said. “But even then birds figure out that some individual predators aren’t particularly scary.”
Earlier this month, a drone (not a Robird) collided with a passenger airplane for the first time in Canada. The plane had minor damage and no one was hurt. Still, airports are rightly wary of drones.
Jordan Cicoria, the managing director of Aerium Analytics, a Calgary-based company that operates the Robird at Edmonton, argues that a Robird is safer than an autonomous drone. It’s controlled by a pilot on the ground, who is always accompanied by an observer to keep track of flocks and monitor the environment. The operators are in contact with air traffic control. The Robird is programmed to stay within a confined area, over the grasses and ponds near the airport, and to stay away from runways. If it were to malfunction, it would fall straight down, avoiding the drift that can put a drone in harm’s way.
Edmonton was the first commercial airport to test the Robird, in a three-month trial that just ended. (Southampton International Airport in Britain is also doing a test, which will end in early December.) During the Edmonton trial, the Robird’s day started when wildlife specialist Wojnowski made an early-morning drive around the perimeter to see where birds were flocking and what species were present — he’s recorded 170 different species. At 7,000 acres, Edmonton is one of the largest airports in the world, so this is not a quick errand. The Robird operators then work with Wojnowski to choose where to fly, altering the schedule during the day as necessary. Few birds means few Robird flights. (Rain means none, and the Robird does not work well in very cold weather — something Jonker is working to remedy.) But some days the Robird flew six times, said Cicoria. “We had to randomize it. If we had a set schedule — same time, same place — the birds know not to go there at that time.” The operators choose their spot and lob the Robird by hand, as with a paper airplane. The battery in the Robird’s head can last for 15 minutes, but falcons usually fly for only about five minutes, so the Robird does, too.
Nobody will talk about how much the airport is paying to employ the Robird. “Because it’s a trial and first of its kind, we haven’t created a full costing model yet,” said Cicoria. It’s obviously a lot, though, because of the two-man crew. Cicoria said that the crew does other survey and inspection projects when it’s not flying the Robird, to defray costs. Edmonton collected data on how birds reacted, how long it took them to return and in what numbers. “We are trying to determine if repeated dispersals decreased the presence of birds over time,” Chodan said. The data is not yet analyzed, but Chodan said in an email: “We have seen firsthand that Robird does cause birds to leave the area it is flying in. It will not necessarily replace other measures of bird control, but it is definitely a good new tool. As the technology and techniques evolve, Robird will get more effective and efficient, so it is worth further effort to study and develop.” In the spring, when birds return to Edmonton airport, the Robird will be waiting for them.
Tina Rosenberg won a Pulitzer Prize for her book “The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism.” She is a former editorial writer for The Times and the author, most recently, of “Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World” and the World War II spy story e-book “D for Deception.” She is a co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, which supports rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.
Fixes column, The New York Times Opinion – see https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/28/opinion/birds-planes-robird.html?em_pos=large&emc=edit_ty_20171128&nl=opinion-today&nlid=69409751&ref=headline&te=1&_r=0 to watch the video.