Robird drone convinces bird flocks to move away from airports

By Patrick C. Miller | November 07, 2018

Airplane and helicopter pilots could become fans of falcon-shaped drones operating around airports when they experience the benefits these specialized unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) provide in reducing bird strikes.

Since mid-September, Aerium Analytics, Clear Flight Solutions and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have been working with the city of Grand Forks, North Dakota, to lower the number of bird strikes at the Grand Forks International Airport. Located adjacent to an airport surrounded by farms are 1,300 acres of wastewater treatment ponds that each year attract thousands of gulls, ducks and geese. Because the University of North Dakota conducts student flight training at the airport, it’s one of the top 20 to 25 busiest in the U.S.

“Last year, we had USDA do a one-day assessment in the fall,” said Melanie Parvey, Grand Forks water works director. “It was during migration and they documented 13,000 to 16,000 birds a night. When we stepped back and looked at it, we knew we had to do something because the majority of increases in strikes were happening at the airport with gulls and the larger birds.”

Having so many aircraft in close proximity to so many birds normally results in dozens of bird strikes on aircraft annually. However, the Robird—a drone that looks and flies like a peregrine falcon—has dramatically reduced both the number of birds near the airport and number of bird strikes on manned aircraft. There were 34 bird strikes at the airport in 2016 and just 17 through mid-October this year. The number of birds in the area has dropped from around 5,000 in September to about 200 in late October.

“We’re very pleased with the results and with the city, the USDA and everybody coming together to address this the best way possible,” said Ryan Riesinger, Grand Forks airport executive director, who has witnessed the Robird in action. “The way it flies like an actual bird is incredible, and that’s for good reason: they’re trying to draw on the natural instinct of the prey. The birds believe they’re seeing a peregrine falcon.”

Typically, the birds are most numerous in August and September. That’s when juvenile birds start to fly—freeing adult birds from their parental duties—and the migration season begins. By mid-November, problems with bird strikes nearly disappear when the water treatment ponds freeze up and the migration season ends.

Aerium Analytics—headquartered in Calgary, Alberta—is a part owner of Clear Flight Solutions, which is based in The Netherlands and manufactures the Robird. The drone and its software has undergone development and design changes over a 10-year period and is now in its fourth generation. One reason Clear Flight Solutions based its design on the peregrine falcon is that it’s a predator found on six continents.

“The peregrine falcon was a very clear choice for the bird because they’re basically the bullies of the sky; they will fight anyone, any time,” said Andries Altenburg, a pilot and mechanic for Clear Flight Solutions. To underscore the point, he noted that a real peregrine falcon once tried to pick a fight with the Robird.

It’s not easy to convince flocks of birds that have lived in a safe area with food and water for perhaps their entire lives to move elsewhere. “If they see that there’s a natural predator in the area, they’re not going to want to stay there,” explained Matthew Holodinsky, U.S. operations coordinator for Aerium Analytics. “They’ll remember that area as having a falcon. They’ll instead choose to roost in an area that’s safer with no natural predator.”

The Grand Forks International Airport is the third facility at which Aerium Analytics and Clear Flight Solutions have employed the Robird to help mitigate bird problems. The companies have worked two seasons at the Edmonton International Airport in Alberta and will return for a third season next year. They’ve also worked the Southhampton Airport in England where Altenburg said bird strikes saw a significant drop when the Robird was on duty. Last month, the technology was demonstrated at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

Parvey, who worked to secure $135,000 in city funding for the Grand Forks project—$55,000 for USDA and $80,000 for Aerium Analytics and Clear Flight Solutions—is hopeful that this year’s success will result in a continuation of the project next year. “We have a cooperative services agreement with USDA,” she said. “We asked them to come help us try to manage this problem. They’ve been here since April working on the project in conjunction with Aerium Analytics and Clear Flight Solutions. That partnership’s been working really well.”

Russell Tremblay, a wildlife technician with USDA Wildlife Services who assisted with the Grand Forks project, noted that the agency is actively engaged in wildlife management and mitigation at some of the busiest airports in the country, both for safety and to protect human health. “The drone is another tool in the bag,” he said. “What I’ve been able to do is relocate some birds, but having Aerium Analytic’s help gets the birds completely out of the area. Airport safety is the No. 1 reason we’re here.”

Even as Holodinsky and Altenburg demonstrate the Robird, helicopters, small single-engine aircraft and large multi-engine airplanes fly overhead, arriving at and departing from the Grand Forks International Airport.

“It is a training airport, so aircraft are always coming in at different altitudes,” Holodinsky said. “What we’ll do is move the drone as far away from the aircraft as possible and fly as low as possible—or we’ll just bring it in for a landing. They usually go over quickly and then we can go back to our operation of herding the birds away from those airplanes.”

The Robird team said integrating their drone operations with manned air traffic control has gone smoothly. Geo-fencing prevents the Robird from flying too high or too close to the airport. A certificate of authorization (COA) from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) enables them to fly the Robird within the airport’s controlled airspace.

“With LAANC (Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability), we send out a notification that’s just like the COA application, and then we get approvals,” Holodinsky explained. “As part of our daily operations, we call the Grand Forks air traffic control tower every morning to let them know when we start flying and give them a half-hour warning. We let them know where we’ll be flying that day. If we move locations, we’ll call to tell them which location we’re at and then we give them a call when we’re done for the day.

“We’re in constant communication with the air traffic tower,” he continued. “We also have a tele-radio that’s hooked up to the frequencies of the air traffic control tower, so we can see when planes are taking off and when they’re landing or if they’re coming in on final approach. We’re in constant communication.”

Operating as a two-man team not only improves situational awareness, but also enables the Robird pilot to concentrate on flying in relation to the birds being targeted.

“If I’m piloting the flight, Andries is being the observer and letting me know about the general area where the Robird is flying,” Holodinsky said. “I can concentrate on flying the bird. Especially in controlled airspace, a two-person team is vital to maintaining situational awareness. In a unique environment, you need a two-person team.”

Holodinsky and Altenburg agree that the Robird is not an easy drone to fly, which is why it requires special training.

“What we usually do with our pilots is send them on a two-week boot camp for training in The Netherlands where the Clear Flight Solutions’ head office is,” Holodinsky said. “They’ll train with two pilots who have the most hours. They’ll learn how to fly, how to do some field repairs and how to put together a Robird with the primary maintenance technician.”

The flapping of the Robird’s wings is one of the reasons it can be a difficult drone to operate, but it’s also the feature which makes it so effective at influencing roosting birds to go elsewhere.

“The flapping motion definitely adds to the impact,” Altenburg said. “When you’re chasing birds, different flapping speeds can have different effects. Most birds can tell the difference between a falcon that’s actually attacking and a falcon that’s just flying round. You want to go full throttle when you’re attacking because they’re going to see that high flapping speed and think, ‘Oh crap! It’s trying to get me!’ They’re going to try to get out of there as fast as they can.”

Holodinsky believes the benefits of the Robird will help convince the manned aviation community that drones can operate safely—even the controlled airspace of a busy airport.

“We talk about how the UAS industry is a fairly new industry and how some people may fight having drones in and around airports,” he said. “But if it’s a competent operator, we say drones are here to stay. It’s a matter of working with the airports to get them comfortable with all the safety features of the airframes themselves and showing that we have many hours of experience.”