Bird strikes present a clear and present danger to airport operators on a daily basis. Robbert de Vries, design engineer and production manager at Clear Flight Solutions, explains how his company is providing a drone solution to rid airports of the problem once and for all.

What are the risks that bird strikes present to airport operators?

Robbert de Vries: In most cases, airports and their surroundings are very attractive for birds. These large open spaces offer ideal resting and feeding places, and for waders, the grasslands are perfect for nesting, resulting in a serious chance of bird strikes. Certainly, when birds are ingested into the engines of aircraft, the lives of the crew, passengers and people on the ground are at risk. Due to nature preservation schemes worldwide, the number of some birds species has grown tenfold in the past decade. Coupled with the global increase of manned aviation, bird strikes have become a serious threat.

Can you tell us about your product, the Robird? What is it and how does it work?

With the Robird, we have created a remotely piloted flapping-wing bird of prey that mimics a real raptor not only in silhouette, but also in behaviour and flapping of wings. When chicks hatch, their natural instinct makes them recognise predators from day one. This imprinted fear makes them avoid areas of prey. By significantly reducing bird pressure in an area, the more lethal methods can be avoided and, thus, the number of bird strikes can be minimised. Available for use against small to medium-sized birds there is a peregrine falcon and, against large birds like geese, a bald eagle, offering a broad-range, controllable and environmentally sustainable bird-control solution.

What advantages does deployment of the Robird present over conventional falconry?

The Robird is the mainstay of long-term bird control as pest birds do not habituate to predators. Unlike falconry solutions, the Robird can fly all day, stay within a pre-defined ‘geo-fence’ and is not a potential bird strike victim itself. It takes a falconer many years of training to work at airports. Birds of prey are wild animals and only return to the falconer when they have an empty stomach.

They only hunt for easy catches, which could be birds on the other side of the runway the falconer did not see. Combined with green lasers and pre-recorded distress calls, the Robird solution is more financially sustainable than a falconry-based solution and, most importantly, greatly improves the safety of manned aviation.

You state that the Robird is a "truly unique remotely controlled tool" for the user. In what ways does your product differ from conventional drone technology?

For propulsion, we use a flapping wing mechanism. The technology has been developed and perfected by Clear Flight Solutions. This allows us to perfectly mimic the flight characteristics of real birds. We have done a lot of research on the flapping wing to understand the advanced aerodynamics. We do acknowledge that there are others working on this type of movement as well but, to our knowledge, no one has been able to create a durable product like the Clear Flight Solutions Robirds. We have also implemented systems like ‘geo-fence’ return-to-home and other autopilot functions that allow the user to operate the Robirds safely, even on the airside of airports.

Could you describe the training process that a Robird operator undergoes?

At Clear Flight Solutions, we work with remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) pilots with many years of experience behind them. As a company that provides bird-control services at airports, abiding by the relevant national aviation regulations remains one of our top priorities. All of our pilots are well trained by either the NLR or EuroUSC, and hold the RPAS pilot certificate. They also have a comprehensive understanding of the technology that is used in the Robirds. Not only are they crack pilots but they are also trained in ornithology so that they know how to respond to different species of birds.

What have you learnt from your recent trials?

The data we’ve accrued from our recent trials is very encouraging and completely justifies our confidence in the original design concept. For example, one trial at a waste management facility called Twence resulted in a drop in the long-term presence of birds of up to 95%. As such, we’ve only had to make minimal improvements to the product design to enhance its controllability.

What are Clear Flight Solutions’ plans for the future?

Clear Flight Solutions started three years ago with the aim of providing airports with a clear flight solution. The team has grown to 12 members since we started. We’ve passed the phase of trials and now we provide a solid bird-control solution not only in aviation, but also in the domains of harbours, industrial sites, wildlife preservation, agriculture and waste management. We are currently looking for potential new areas where we can design a fitting plan to solve bird problems and become one of the key players in bird control worldwide.

Our future goal is to create a fully autonomous system that can spot and intercept birds automatically. This will encompass integration with avian radar systems and far more sensory equipment to create a highly intelligent Robird, aware of its own surroundings, that can control the skies over and around airports, protecting aircraft, their crews, their passengers and the people on the ground from the devastating effects bird strikes can have.