Radio-controlled planes used to study bird-plane collisions

HURON Fishers and boaters may see an unusual sight near the mouth of the Huron River this summer.
May 24, 2010



Fishers and boaters may see an unusual sight near the mouth of the Huron River this summer.

Looking for ways to reduce bird-plane collisions, wildlife biologists want to try flying specially equipped radio-controlled planes at flocks of birds to see how they react.

"This is going to Huron because they've got a nice gull roost there at the mouth of the river," said Brad Blackwell, a researcher with the National Wildlife Research Center.

The agency's Sandusky field office, located at NASA Plum Brook Station, is the center of research into reducing wildlife hazards to aviation, particularly birds.

Blackwell and his colleagues have spent years on the subject, but it has gained public attention since a double-bird strike forced a U.S. Airways jet to land in the Hudson River in February.

The idea for the project in Huron -- a collaboration between several private and public entities -- started with reports that in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, planes with pulsing light systems from Oregon-based Precise Flight were sustaining fewer bird strikes.

"We did a little digging," Blackwell said. "We found in the anecdotal literature ... that there was some evidence that birds might respond to aspects of lighting on aircraft."

A team of researchers, working at NASA, tested the idea by driving trucks mounted with the lights toward caged birds. Their avoidance behavior suggested that enhancing the visibility of aircraft with lighting could be effective.

Now the researchers -- scientists based at NASA, plus professors from Indiana State and Perdue universities -- want to test different pulse frequencies and light wavelengths, and their effect on free-range birds.

First, however, they have to get Huron's permission. City manager Andy White said the city's public safety committee will hear the proposal this week or next.

"Obviously we want to protect the safety of the community, but the project itself is so important that we want to help the federal government study this avian problem," he said.

Finding a way to use lighting systems to warn away birds would be helpful, Blackwell said, because aircraft manufacturers don't want to add extra equipment that would increase the cost or weight of planes.

Blackwell said the planes will be hobby aircraft with wingspans up to 9 feet. They still have to be outfitted with tools such as cameras and devices to measure speed and rate of descent.

The researchers must gather preliminary information from test runs to develop a design for the experiment, which they plan to conduct in late June or early July.

"We don't want to just fly an aircraft at a bunch of birds," Blackwell said.