Science

Canadian radar helping avert bird strikes at U.S. airports

A Canadian technology is being used to help prevent collisions between birds and airplanes at major airports in New York, Chicago and Seattle.
Accipiter's system tracks the position of birds such as this flock of starlings taking off from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. ((Accipiter Radar Technologies Inc.))
A Canadian technology is being used to help prevent collisions between birds and airplanes at major airports in New York, Chicago and Seattle.

Avian radar systems made by Fonthill, Ont.-based Accipiter Radar Technologies Inc. allow airport wildlife management staff to track birds on airport property and the surrounding area, company CEO Tim Nohara said.

That lets staff know where and when they might have to scare the birds off using noisemakers such as guns or animals such as dogs.

"Their challenge is they can't see all the birds," Nohara said. "The radar really in that situation would give them eyes everywhere."

In Canada, aircraft bird strikes rose 64 per cent between 2002 and 2007, from 806 to 1,324, according to a CBC News analysis of Transport Canada data published Thursday. Most cause little — if any — damage, but some can have serious consequences, as illustrated by the US Airways Flight 1549 case in January. The Airbus 320 jet was forced to ditch in New York's Hudson River after it hit a flock of geese upon takeoff from LaGuardia Airport and lost power in both engines.

In some cases, airlines may have to make tens of thousands of dollars in repairs, often to a plane's engines, as a result of a bird strike.

Geese are some of the most dangerous birds for airplanes, as they are large and travel in big flocks. But because of their large size, they can be tracked using Accipiter's radar system at a distance of up to 10 kilometres, Nohara said.

Deployed at JFK, O'Hare

Accipiter's avian radar has been deployed at Seattle-Tacoma International (shown above) and two other major U.S. airports, but has only been tested in Canada at Vancouver International Airport. ((Accipiter Radar Technologies Inc.))
The relatively new tool became commercially available about six year ago. Systems have been deployed at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, O'Hare International Airport in Chicago and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Washington state, as well as at several military airports from Alaska to the Carolinas, Nohara said. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is currently in its third year of a program to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the Accipiter system and the ways it can be used based on the data from those airports, he added.

Each system costs about $200,000 to $1 million per airport, including sensor units to collect the radar data and servers to process and store it.

So far in Canada, the technology has only been tested at Vancouver International Airport.

"Canada is very interested in avian radars, but hasn't sort of stepped forward yet in terms of deploying them," Nohara said.

The system tracks radar signals in real time, showing the positions of birds and other moving objects every few seconds. But it also stores the data, allowing patterns to be analyzed over time. That could provide information about bird migrations and populations, Nohara said, as well as whether efforts to make airport grounds unattractive to birds are working.

Some have suggested the system could also be used to warn pilots about approaching birds so they can take evasive action. However, Nohara said there is not enough data yet to support that type of use, and for safety reasons, it's best not to alter the path of an aircraft.

'Small, unco-operative targets'

Nohara completed three engineering degrees, including a PhD, at McMaster University in Hamilton, then worked at the defence technology company Raytheon before starting Accipiter in 1994. Originally, the radar company was focused on tracking "small, unco-operative targets" such as zodiacs and personal watercraft that might be trying to make illegal border crossings on the Great Lakes. The company got into the avian radar business in 2003, when it was invited by some U.S. navy scientists to bid on an avian radar contract.

"They recognized that birds also fit the description of small, unco-operative targets," Nohara recalled. The company won the contract and has been in the business ever since. No other Canadian firms make similar technology, and only a few do in the U.S.

Accipiter is a subsidiary of Sicom Systems Ltd., a privately held Canadian company.

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