Airport technology tracks flying birds

U. ILLINOIS—Wildlife managers now have access to real-time displays of bird activity on and around Seattle-Tacoma International airport thanks to a recently deployed bird tracking system.

Following the ditching of U. S. Air 1549 in the Hudson River on January 15, 2009, there has been an increased awareness of bird aircraft strike hazards. More than 7,000 bird strikes are reported to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) annually.

Using this enhanced tracking technology, wildlife staff can access the “as it happens” data from airport avian radars using laptop computers as they patrol the airport and its known bird hazard “hot spots.”

Other options are available to follow movements on larger monitoring screens, or screens at other locations. System users also can call up daily summaries of bird track histories on a day-to-day, week-to-week, or season-to-season basis to better assess bird movement patterns and analyze flock and individual bird dynamics.

The system was deployed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-designated Center of Excellence for Airport Technology (CEAT) at the University of Illinois, with the support of wildlife biologists at the Port of Seattle and equipment from Accipiter Radar. The research program—which has progressed from validation of radar capabilities to an operational assessment phase—will continue to work toward the development of guidance for avian radar use at civil airports under the FAA-sponsored research and development program.

Avian radars improve situational awareness for wildlife managers and provide a valuable tool to improve airport safety, says Edwin Herricks, a professor of environmental engineering, who directs the Airport Safety Management Program.

Compared to aircraft or other moving objects, birds pose special challenges. “Their rapid changes in altitude, speed, and direction have required the development of advanced avian radar systems and new operational procedures for wildlife and airport safety management.” Herricks adds.

Bird radar tracking activity at Seattle’s airport began in 2007. The new, more advanced system implements a science-based program to assess the bird tracking capabilities of radar for the FAA.

In 2006, commercially available avian radar systems were identified and the FAA tasked CEAT with the performance assessments of radar use in wildlife management and operational safety. Validation of target information followed radar deployment using field observations and also included experiments that flew radio-controlled model aircraft to simulate birds and their flight patterns.

“Although radar has been around for a long time, its use at civil airports for bird tracking is new and requires exacting assessments to establish needed requirements and standards for general use,” Herricks says.

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