Drones Lead Flocks of Birds Away From Planes, Could Prevent Thousands of Collisions Every Year

Birds and planes often compete for the same airspace —an encounter that almost always ends in the birds' death. However, a new study suggests a robot herder could keep nearby flocks safe from incoming aircraft and alleviate the $1.2 billion in damages bird strikes cause the aviation industry each year.

California Institute of Technology scientists successfully herded a flock of dozens of birds away from the path of planes with just one drone, guided by an algorithm designed to predict sheep herding behaviors, according to results published in the journal IEEE Transactions on Robotics.

Researchers developed their own algorithm to teach the drone to lead the flocks based on typical flocking patterns and behaviors, but they used extreme caution: Flocks of birds operate as a unit, so they change course—or don't—together. If an impending threat (like a drone) comes too close to the flock, they scatter and fly individually, study co-author Soon-Jo Chung said in a statement.

When the drone assumed the lead position, its guidance trimmed the amount of space the birds occupied in the sky and successfully diverted them from flying near airspace planes traveled through.

Chung said he conceived the project after a geese collision in 2009 forced US Airways Flight 1549, piloted by Chesley Sullenberger, to make an emergency landing in Manhattan's Hudson River.

"The passengers on Flight 1549 were only saved because the pilots were so skilled," he said in a statement. "It made me think that next time might not have such a happy ending."

drone herds birds away from planes
A flock of birds flies behind a Delta Airlines plane in November 2015 in Washington, D.C. A team of scientists taught a drone to herd a flock of birds away from planes, a tool airports could use to prevent the 13,000-plus bird strikes that occur every year. (Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

Plane-animal collisions are surprisingly frequent, according to data from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA): They killed more than 13,150 birds (plus an iguana) in 2014 alone, though birds account for almost 100 percent of aerial wildlife encounters. Bird strikes have grown in frequency as commercial, private and military aircraft increasingly flood the sky and jets install quieter engines, Bird Strike Committee USA chair John Ostrom told ABC News in 2009.

Past attempts to deter birds, like laying bird-repellent turf or firing live ammunition at incoming fowl, have largely failed to impact the growing amount of collisions, which often result in birds getting sucked into the plane's engine and lodged there or running into the side of an aircraft, which usually travel between 150 to 180 miles per hour during takeoff and landing, and dying on impact.

According to the FAA, 92 percent of bird strikes occur at or below 3,500 above ground level, an altitude planes reach during takeoff and touchdown, and are more common during the fall when birds begin their seasonal migration. The administration said despite their frequency, the strikes rarely cause major events: Of more than 179,000 bird strikes between 1990 and 2016, just 0.25 percent have resulted in accidents.

The most recent bird strike that required an emergency landing occurred in July, forcing an Allegiant Air flight from Punta Gorda, Florida, to divert to Orlando, where staff discovered bird remains in the engine. No one onboard was injured, officials said.