Flock of galah cockatoos in tree

Airspaces could be kept bird-free with herding drones

Image credit: Dreamstime

Korean researchers have presented an algorithm to enable a single unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to herd whole flocks of birds away from protected airspaces.

Birds and large airborne structures do not mix; a bird strike can disable an aircraft engine, while animal welfare activists are concerned with the impact of wind turbines on local bird populations, with technological interventions suggested to help prevent these impacts. In the UK in 2016, there were 1,835 confirmed bird strikes (representing approximately 1 in 10,000 flights), threatening the safety of passengers and plane.

Existing methods for removing birds from protected areas include scarecrows, introducing fake and real natural predators, blasting sudden load noises and stripping surrounding areas of sources of food for the birds.

Now, researchers based at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) - working with experts at both the California Institute of Technology and also Imperial College London - have suggested a way to keep birds safely away from designed airspaces using UAVs. The result is the ‘m-waypoint algorithm’, which protects the boundaries of the airspace by herding away whole flocks of birds without breaking their formation and scattering lone birds.

The algorithm was based on models of flock behaviours and responses to threats.

“It is quite interesting, and even awe-inspiring, to monitor how birds react to threats and collectively behave against threatening objects through the flock,” said Professor David Hyunchul Shim, head of the KAIST Unmanned Systems Research Group.

“We made careful observations of flock dynamics and interactions between flocks and the pursuer. This allowed us to create a new herding algorithm for ideal flight paths for incoming drones to move the flock away from a protected airspace.”

The researchers tested their algorithm in a designated airspace near the KAIST campus, using two drones. One drone performed manoeuvres around the flock, much like an airborne sheepdog, while the other hovered above the activity and recorded it with a downward-facing camera. The birds diverted their paths in response to the herding drone’s movements, allowing for a significant measure of control over the whole flock.

“I was amazed with the birds’ capability to interact with flying objects. We thought that only birds of prey have a strong sense of manoeuvring with the prey. But our observations […] led us to reach the hypothesis that they all have similar levels of manoeuvring with the flying objects,” Shim commented. “It will be very interesting to collaborate with ornithologists to study further birds’ behaviour with aerial objects.”

“Airports are trying to transform into smart airports. This algorithm will help improve safety for the aviation industry. In addition, this will also help control avian influenza that plagues farms nationwide every year.”

Next, the researchers will work to develop more sophisticated systems for bird detection, ranging and automated deployment of herding drones.

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