Thursday, March 5, 2009

New Technology May Prevent Bird Strikes - ABC News

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Avian Radar on top of buildings at Sea-Tac Airport's terminal area track the flight of birds to prevent dangerous collisions. (Sea-Tac Airport)

At Seattle's Sea-Tac Airport, an experimental radar system monitors a threat to the nation's aircrafts that goes largely unnoticed: birds.

Birds frequently fly into airplanes, and as it became frighteningly clear last month when such a collision disabled a jet in New York, forcing the pilot to crash-land in the Hudson River, though birds may be small, they can cause serious damage.

While many of the nation's airports defend against flocking birds with crude scare tactics, such as explosives and noise markers, airport wildlife biologist Steve Osmek is testing the nation's first Avian Radar.

The system at Sea-Tac uses a series of small radar units, which have been refined to pick out birds from all the clutter, and determine birds' courses, speed and altitude several miles around the airport.

"We set up alarm zones, we set up alert areas, and so, when you have birds that are flying through, the software alerts us. It can either send me an e-mail [or] it can call my cell phone," Osmek said.

The system, which has been in use at Sea-Tac since 2007, wasn't receiving much attention until the ditching of US Airways Flight 1549 last month. The Airbus A-320 jet was forced to land in New York's Hudson River because of a pair of bird strikes that disabled both of its engines. All of the passengers survived.

To Osmek, who has been cataloguing bird strike data and the damage done to planes for years, the accident did not seem like a fluke, but rather, like a part of a greater trend.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, bird strikes are the second leading cause of aviation deaths and wreak more than $300 million in damages each year in the United States alone.

Inside a hanger at Sea-Tac, Osmek has a freezer full of frozen birds and other evidence of repeated bird strikes over the years.

Among the birds in the collection is a short-eared owl that was struck on April 19, 2008, as well as a red-tailed hawk that had been caught near a runway at Sea-Tac just hours before ABC News spoke with Osmek.

Even a single bird that weighs not even two pounds is capable of causing serious damage to a jet engine.

The Program for Wildlife Management at Sea-Tac has developed the avian radar in conjunction with the University of Illinois to lessen the chances of airplane-bird collisions and protect the safety of passengers and birds alike.

ABC News aviation expert John Nance said this type of technology could have made a difference in the case of US Airways Flight 1549 and shows great promise for the future of aviation.

"If we had had a system like this that was perfected, it could have not only helped [the jet's pilot], it could have prevented this collision," Nance said.

JFK, O'Hare and Dallas airports are all in line to test the Avian Radar system used at Sea-Tac sometime this year. Airports across the nation hope that this radar will be an early warning of a problem pilots don't usually see until it's too late.