The direct cost of damage caused to aircraft by bird strikes and Foreign Objects Debris (FOD) on airfields is estimated to be around $1.2 billion per annum.
The figure is not insignificant, and it rises to an incredible $12 billion if indirect costs such as flight delays, aircraft downtime and increased insurance premiums are taken into account.
A 2011 FAA report on wildlife strikes between 1990 and 2009 reveals that 41% of bird strike incidents involving commercial aircrafts occur at ground level.
In fact, ground level bird strikes are considered the most common and dangerous types of strike. An academic report published by Iain McCreary and Insight SRI in 2010 pointed out that 44% of aircraft destroyed by bird strikes were caused by on-runway strikes.
As recently as this January, a DFW-bound American Airlines flight had to execute an emergency landing after striking birds during take-off at California’s Santa Ana International Airport, while in the UK, an easyJet flight was forced to turn back to the Isle of Man’s Ronaldsway Airport after a bird strike shortly after take-off.
Fortunately, a combination of new technology and effective bird and wildlife deterrence measures ensures that most ground level incidents can be avoided.
Anti-bird strike technology
When it comes to technology, an increasing number of airports are looking at automated FOD detection systems as a way of improving airfield safety and reducing the risk of bird strikes.
The advantage they offer over other solutions is that they are designed to automatically and continously scan the runway for foreign objects, birds or other wildlife, raise the alarm if they find anything, and then locate them with pinpoint accuracy.
One such system, Xsight Systems’ FODetect, utilises Surface Detection Unit (SDU) sensors located across the airport’s surface for high resolution and swift detection.
Each SDU combines a millimetre-wave radar sensor and an optic sensor with Near Infra-Red (NIR) illumination for improved night performance, and when integrated with an airport’s elevated runway or taxiway edge lighting infrastructure, converts them into smart edge lights which can be used to detect hazardous objects, birds and other wildlife.
The technology allows an entire runway to be scanned between each ground movement and – if required – live video, GPS co-ordinates and a laser pointer can assist airport staff in identifying the location of any FOD or wildlife, allowing for their swift and efficient removal.
All detection data and images and video recordings are archived and tagged, allowing for a comprehensive statistics reporting system, which documents all events.
Analysing such data can, of course, be used to investigate birds’ behaviour patterns and conduct wildlife hazard assessment (required by regulation) through the identification of different species of birds, their numbers, locations, local movements and daily and seasonal occurrences.
The challenges ahead
Other bird strike prevention solutions include avian radar (see page 62), bird patrols, audio and visual deterrents, environmental modification and population management.
Technologies used to scare birds away from the airfield include everything from broadcasting bird distress calls to the use of lasers, lights, mirrors and reflectors.
Environmental modification methods essentially revolve around the elimination or reduction of food, water or shelter attractive to wildlife, either at or near the gateway.
All provide an effective deterrent to bird strikes, but as recent events in the US and the UK have shown, the threat of bird strikes remains a very real hazard to aircraft, putting human lives and expensive equipment at risk.
With many incidents occurring at ground level, maybe it is time for airports, airlines and regulators to take a look at automated FOD detection technology as an advanced way to reduce the risk of bird strike, improve airline and passenger safety, and increase runway capacity.