Embry-Riddle students using drones to try prevent planes from hitting birds near airports

ORLANDO, Fla. — Since the days of the Wright Brothers, inventors have looked to birds to better understand flight. Unfortunately, it is also birds that so often fly into the path of planes, sometimes with catastrophic results.

While commercial jets are designed to withstand small bird strikes, the problem gets worse if a plane hits a flock of birds like U.S. Airways flight 1549 in 2009 or if the plane hits a larger bird like a vulture.

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Part of mitigating this risk is for airports to find where birds are nesting and either scare them off or relocate the nests. Now, students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University are experimenting with a new way to prevent one of the leading causes of aircraft accidents by using drones to search airfields for wildlife that may fly into the path of a plane during takeoff or landing.

“Wildlife is an inherent risk when it comes to aviation,” says Flavio Antonio Coimbra Mendonca, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “Airports are required to maintain a safe environment and that includes observing wildlife habitat and identifying hazardous wildlife.”

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The FAA, which recently started publishing wildlife strikes, shows Orlando (MCO) as the leading airport for wildlife strikes in Florida since 2018 with 565 incidents, Tampa (TPA) is second with 407, followed by Fort Lauderdale (FLL) with 327.

Right now, the Embry-Riddle Team is using its drone to map areas of airports, flying above the treetops for a detailed view of nesting areas and other possible concerns.

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“It’s a great tool that can help airport operators identify birds and can provide information about areas that would be almost impossible to access through ground-based means,” says Mendonca.