The Robird and its inventor Nico Nijenhuis

Robotic falcon 'hired' to protect German airport

A robotic falcon called Robird has been given its first assignment at a small German airport to demonstrate its ability to scare away birds.

The Weeze airport, just across the border from the Dutch town of Nijmegen, will provide ideal conditions to test the drone technology developed by a team from the University of Twente, the Netherlands.

The quiet airport, which handles only around 2.5 million passengers every year, will serve as a test bed for a possible future deployment of the technology at much busier sites, including Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.

"This is a historic step for the Robird and our company", said Nico Nijenhuis, CEO of Clear Flight Solutions, a spin-off company from the University of Twente that markets and develops Robird. “We already fly our Robirds and drones at many locations and doing this at an airport for the first time is really significant. Schiphol Airport has been interested for many years now, but Dutch law makes it difficult to test there. The situation is easier in Germany, which is why we are going to Weeze.”

The trial will involve training the operators and air traffic controllers to ensure the robotic falcon doesn’t present any risk to aircraft.

“If you operate at an airport, there are a lot of protocols that you have to follow,” explained Nijenhuis. “You’re working in a high-risk area and there are all kinds of things that you need to check. We use the latest technologies, but the human aspect also remains crucial.”

Robird scares away birds by mimicking the flight of a real peregrine falcon. The birds react to it naturally as they would to the real predator by flying away to a safer area. This is a major advantage compared to other means of bird management, which usually stop working overtime as the clever creatures learn to see through the trick. 

Bird control is a major issue for airports worldwide as the animals can cause material damage, but also put safety of aircraft at risk in terms of getting sucked into the plane’s engines.

Problems with birds are frequently reported from other sectors as well, including agriculture, waste disposal and the oil and gas industry. In late 2015, for example, a trial system using sound and lasers was deployed on an oil rig platform to keep seabirds off the helideck, as the build-up of gull guano is treacherous to workers.

In a role reversal of the Weeze experiment, real birds of prey have also been trained in the Netherlands to capture and destroy illegal drones flying in areas where they are prohibited. The drone-killing eagles in Holland have inspired the UK Metropolitan police to consider adopting the idea.

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