Research Briefs

Using radar to keep planes from striking birds

A crane on the broken windshield of a helicoptor.

This image shows a Blackhawk helicopter that hit a migrating crane at 800 feet (244 meters) above the ground. (Image courtesy Air Combat Command.)

NCAR researchers are collaborating with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Federal Aviation Administration, Purdue University, and Indiana State University on a program to study how bird-detecting radar at airports could help prevent dangerous airplane bird strikes, such as the incident with the U.S. Airways plane that made an emergency landing in the Hudson River in January 2009.

The USDA is responsible for wildlife management at airports. Bird strikes are a significant threat to flight safety, as more than 219 people have been killed worldwide since 1988 as a result of aircraft colliding with birds, according to Bird Strike Committee USA. Bird and other wildlife strikes cost U.S. civil aviation more than $600 million per year.

The NCAR team, led by Cathy Kessinger and Larry Cornman, is lending its radar expertise to the project, which will take place over the next year. Researchers will test the ability of the MERLIN Avian Radar System by DeTect, Inc., to scan for, detect, and track both real birds (turkey vultures) that are tagged with GPS receivers and robotic aircraft (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs). They hope to determine the radar's accuracy and detection capabilities related to range, altitude, target size, and weather conditions.

The project will include a field component in either Colorado or at Plum Brook Station near Sandusky, Ohio. The multiagency team includes avian biologists who study how birds avoid objects while in flight and whether they may be able to detect radar beams.