Bird strike incidents could be reduced by displaying pulsed lighting on the wings and fuselages of aircraft, according to wildlife ecologists in the USA. In tests with model aircraft, one of the prime culprits in birdstrike incidents - Canada geese - proved more afraid of some lighting patterns than they were of predators.
Damage due to bird strikes is a major drain on the aviation industry, with the costs it incurs running at more than $1.2 billion/year worldwide, with the latest US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Federal Aviation Administration figures citing 26 bird strikes a day in the USA.
Current measures include airports sounding klaxons, cannon effects or predatory bird song to scare flocks away. While partially effective, such measures are clearly not working well enough beyond airports - where a birdstrike led US Airways flight 1549 to a miraculous forced landing on New York's Hudson River in early 2009 during which no one was hurt.
So at the USDA's National Wildlife Research Center in Sandusky, Ohio, researcher Bradley Blackwell has been exploring how to change bird behaviour beyond the airport. And in the Journal of Applied Ecology, published today, he reports some success with pulsed lighting patterns on radio-controlled aircraft.
Blackwell and his team placed a group of 58 Canada geese, all with clipped wings, in a pen in a field. He then flew a standard radio-controlled plane over the pen, followed by the same plane with two lights flashing twice a second on each of its wing landing gear legs. That was followed by the plane in the colours and markings of a bird of prey.
After analysing video of the flock's fear behaviours at each of the passes, the geese responded with a panicky response far more quickly to the model aircraft carrying pulsing lights. The geese were just as cautious of the standard unlit model as the predatory-looking model.
Blackwell thinks the finding is a promising start. "We now need to understand the position of lighting on the aircraft, angle of view and possible pulse frequencies that might be better detected by a broad number of bird species that are frequently struck by aircraft," he says. It may be that existing aircraft lighting - landing and navigation lights - could do the job, perhaps fed pulsed signals at certain phases of flight.
It's a welcome first step, says Ric Parker, Rolls-Royce director of research and technology. Speaking at the Farnborough Airshow, he told Flight Daily News: "Anything that deters birds, or which makes them want to live somewhere besides the big grassy areas near airports, is worth investigating. Lighting might be more effective than noise and klaxons because airports are very noisy environments that birds get immune to."