In the recent years, there has been an immense increase in air traffic, especially at airports. Apart from several aircrafts, flocks of birds are often seen loitering around the runways and also obstructing mid-air flights. This has become a repetitive issue. Earlier methods used to solve this problem included inflatable scarecrows, dogs, gas cannons, shotguns, trained falcons and remotely controlled drones, all of which didn’t have much of an impact on the problem.

Birds causing a nuisance to commercial airliners.

Researchers at Caltech have finally found a solution to this problem. They have developed an algorithm that can pilot an unmanned, off-the-shelf drone to herd flocks of birds away from the airspace surrounding airports. They were inspired by the incident which took place in 2009 with the US Airways Flight 1549. The Airways flight struck a flock of geese soon after its take-off and was safely navigated into a landing on the Hudson River by pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. The incident was an insight into the dangers birds posed to aircraft and the resolution was to prevent any such mishaps in the future by the use of smarter and more effective means.

US Airways Flight 1549 after the 2009 bird collision.

The algorithm, developed by researchers at Caltech, draws on computer models of the behavior of birds inside flocks, such as collision avoidance and velocity matching. It can allow a single drone to fly alongside flocks of birds to adjust their paths away from air traffic.  

“When herding birds away from an airspace, you have to be very careful in how you position your drone,” said Soon-Jo Chung, an associate professor at Caltech who led the robotic-herding research. “If it’s too far away, it won’t move the flock. And if it gets too close, you risk scattering the flock and making it completely uncontrollable. That’s difficult to do with a piloted drone.”

This autonomous drone has an intelligent algorithm which flies at the perfect distance from the flock of birds, thus not scaring and scattering them away uncontrollably. Chung’s team tested the algorithm in a remote area of Korea on a flock of egrets and a flock of loons. It was found out that if the drone approached the flock gradually and flew alongside the birds for a certain distance, it managed to herd the birds towards a different direction.

Watch how the algorithm developed by Chung’s team herds the birds away: