May 26, 2009
Steve Osmek studies a radar screen carefully at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, but he’s not looking at blips of airplanes. It’s birds that light up his screen.
Mr. Osmek is a wildlife biologist testing a new avian radar system in the hopes that it will someday warn air-traffic controllers of birds flying toward the approach and departure paths of airliners, signaling possible danger, much as low-level wind-shear detection systems alert pilots.
Such a system might have triggered an alert for US Airways Flight 1549 to delay its takeoff until a flock of geese passed. Last January, after hitting birds soon after takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia Airport, the plane’s engines began to fail, and the crew landed the plane in the Hudson River and evacuated passengers without any fatalities.
Already the U.S. Air Force has a “bird radar” system in place at four bases, and NASA uses bird radar to protect space-shuttle launches. The Federal Aviation Administration says its test in Seattle has gone well, and it will begin similar tests this summer at Chicago’s O’Hare and New York’s Kennedy airports.
“We’re very excited about the technologies out there and the ones to come,” said Michael O’Donnell, FAA director of airport safety and standards. “It’s very promising.”
The FAA says it’s still several years away, however, from putting bird-radar systems in control towers at commercial airports. The Air Line Pilots Association and others have criticized the agency for taking too long. The National Transportation Safety Board recommended that the FAA develop bird radar 10 years ago, but progress has been slow. The FAA says the technology didn’t become promising until radar advances in 2005.
Airports have battled birds for decades — even the Wright brothers recorded a bird strike. The FAA says that globally, wildlife strikes in aviation have killed more than 219 people and destroyed more than 200 aircraft since 1988. Damage to aircraft in the U.S. is estimated to be around $126 million annually, according to an FAA report last summer.
And summer travelers, take note: Most bird strikes occur between July and October.
Between 1990 and 2007, 82,057 wildlife strikes were reported to the FAA, including those to private planes, as well as airliners and military jets. The number of strikes reported annually quadrupled to 7,666 in 2007 from 1,759 in 1990. Some of that increase results from heightened awareness and increased reporting by pilots and airlines, the FAA says.
NTSB inspectors examine the tail section of US Airways Flight 1549 as it sits on a barge at Weeks Marina in Jersey City, N.J. on Monday, Jan. 19, 2009.
But in addition, populations of wildlife species have increased and adapted to living in urban environments near airports, biologists say. The number of planes in the sky has increased as well. And the quieter two-engine aircraft in use today have a higher chance of collision than older models, which birds found easier to detect and avoid.
With FAA grant money, Sea-Tac installed the nation’s first bird radar at a commercial airport in 2007. Mr. Osmek said it opened his eyes: There were a lot more birds around the airport than he ever knew. Sea-Tac sits in one of three major migratory flyways in North America.
The radar is programmed to peg birds’ altitude and distinguish their size and type, since different species pose different threats to airplanes. Geese are quite dangerous — not only because they are large, but also because they flock together. Radar can identify birds by looking at whether they soar and descend rapidly like birds of prey or whether they tend to fly straight and level. It can also identify birds by their flapping: Some birds flap their wings constantly; others flap a few times and then glide.
Mr. Osmek uses the system to map avian flight patterns, to give pilots general warnings of bird activity in recorded messages they listen to before takeoff and on approach to the airport, and to dispatch wildlife officers to use flares and blank pistol and shotgun shells to scare away birds that cluster near Sea-Tac’s runways.
The system still needs work, he said, before air-traffic controllers can begin using it. Working with the University of Illinois’s Center for Excellence in Airport Technology, researchers are fine-tuning computer programs to minimize the “false positive” radar returns from ground equipment, airplanes and even airborne things as small as insects.
“I don’t think it’s quite there today. We are a long way from where we started, but we’re not ready for this to go to the tower yet,” Mr. Osmek said.
DeTect Inc., a Panama City, Fla., company, says it has a bird radar system based on a different technology that is ready for control towers. DeTect’s Merlin system is in use at four Air Force bases, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and several other sites around the world. “The notion that these bird radars aren’t ready for prime time is wrong,” said Adam Kelly, DeTect’s chief technology officer.
Mr. Kelly said the best use of bird radar is similar to looking both ways before crossing the street: If birds are coming, wait or fly elsewhere until there’s a clear path for the airplane. The radar system can be programmed to signal an alert for a prescribed level of bird activity, based on the size and number of birds.
“You can tell the difference between small birds that would just be a blood smear on a plane or big birds that could be catastrophic,” he said.
All flying doesn’t have to come to a stop when birds are nearby, but if there are enough big birds in the path of a plane, “there has to be a point where the risk is unacceptable,” Mr. Kelly said.
The FAA and DeTect haven’t been able to agree on protocol for evaluating the Merlin system, but DeTect says the FAA recently proposed a new, detailed evaluation plan and evaluation team of radar and airfield bird-control experts, and DeTect has tentatively agreed.
Mr. O’Donnell of the FAA said negotiations are continuing. “We are very interested in DeTect’s system,” he said.
At Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Neb., Maj. John O’Neill, chief safety officer, said the most significant problem the DeTect system has had is difficulty distinguishing between rain and birds, limiting its effectiveness in severe weather. But it’s particularly helpful at night when pilots and controllers can’t see birds.
Offutt has had $10 million worth of aircraft damage from bird strikes over the past five years. The Merlin radar was installed in March, and it’s too early to tell if it has reduced bird strikes, officials said.
Biologists have learned a lot about birds over the years based on how often they are hit by airplanes. Gulls, for example, are considered dumber than crows. FAA statistics show gulls collide with planes twice as often as other species.
Red-tail hawks that nest near the airport have been tagged, and biologists have seen them learn to be airplane-savvy and stay away from flight paths. Transient hawks tend to be the ones struck by airplanes, said Mr. Osmek.
The science of making the airport property unfriendly to birds has advanced. Storm-water drainage ponds around the airport are covered with floating plastic balls that block birds from landing, or the ponds are covered with nets and lined with plastic to reduce vegetation and make the area unattractive to birds. Some ponds are full of vegetation so there’s no open water. The types of plants around the airport area are restricted, too, so that no fruits, nuts or berries are around to attract birds.
Still, birds abound. The last line of defense, until radar systems take root, is to fire flares and blank shells to scare away birds. At Sea-Tac, a team of 24 battles birds around the clock. Radar that could give pilots real-time warnings would be a major advance.
“After [Flight] 1549, now everybody wants it yesterday,” Mr. Osmek said.