Bird strikes have become a major threat to airline safety over the last decade, but as awareness grows, new solutions are being implemented. Stronger radars, habitat management and... black plastic balls. Is this enough to prevent tragedies in the future?

Sully, starring Tom Hanks, not only put the spotlight on the heroism of captain Chesley Sullenberger, but also on a phenomenon fairly unknown among the general public: how powerful jet engines can be annihilated by birds. Well, bird strikes are one of the main causes of incidents and accidents in aviation and the numbers are increasing. 

In 2015, the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) recorded more than 14,000 bird strikes in the US alone. In a November 2016 report, the FAA suggested that contributing factors are “the increasing populations of large birds and increased air traffic by quieter, turbofan-powered aircraft.”

Sometimes these bird strikes can be lethal, according to Siete Hamminga, CEO of Dutch company Robin Radar.

“In 1996, there was a fatal accident in the Dutch city of Eindhoven when a Belgian Air Force Hercules crashed after ingesting birds into two engines, killing 34 people on board,” Hamminga says.

For the Dutch military this accident obviously did not go unnoticed and the army was eager to invest in bird strike avoidance systems. Last October, Robin Radar signed a €7 million euro deal with the Royal Netherlands Air Force to provide bird radars for all air bases in the Netherlands. The Dutch company had previously sold its technology to civilian airports like Schiphol and Copenhagen.  According to the company, Robin Radar is becoming a market leader in Europe, just like DeTect in the US.

“This year, orders for 10 million dollars have come in, which is double the number of 2016,” says Robin Radar’s Hamminga.

So, what is the principle behind the technology? “The radars are fixed on the ground and can map all sort of densities in the surroundings. They then pass the information to a vehicle on the ground, which will be in charge to scare the birds with shrieks, laser beams or pyrotechnics,” Hamminga says.

“The data collected by the radar can also be used for habitat management: for instance, to control certain vegetation that attract large birds or diminish garbage dumps. Eventually our high density images can be used by the airport to pressure third parties, like neighboring municipalities, to control landfills and such.”

Why are bird strikes have become such a menace to aviation?

“It´s definitely an issue of climate change,” says Hamminga. “Apparently, there are more and bigger birds around. A bird of 3 kilos can already do substantial damage to an engine. An adult goose weighs more than 5 kilos. Also, engines have become quieter and there are more planes flying...”

Hamminga is suggesting that since the so-called “miracle on the Hudson, incidents are more easily reported. Birds are usually attracted to airport-sites, because these are often surrounded by swaths of green and artificial ponds, used for extinguishing fires. The noise of the engines can cause a flock of birds to take flight suddenly.

“Most collisions between civil aircraft and birds happen under 300 feet altitude,” says Hamminga. “So take-off and landing are critical. According to ICAO rules, airports are responsible for keeping their airports bird-free, so some airlines put pressure on airports to implement radar systems. And that’s where we come in.”

As aircraft traffic is increasing every day, other solutions for bird menaces emerge. Some airports, especially in Scandinavia, have found an inventive way of preventing birds from settling down around runways: plastic balls made from high-density polystyrene.  According to Bird-X, a Chicago-based company, the deployment of floating bird balls on bodies of water is “an extremely eco-friendly way to prevent bird problems, because they completely cover the water’s surface and prevent pest birds from landing.”



Bird-X is eco-friendly because bird balls unloaded by trucks are a much better solution than killing the birds with traps, chemicals or poison, the company believes.

One could ask whether the plastic itself is not a threat to the environment, but according to Bird-X, “the plastic products are made from 100% recycled materials – gathered from automotive scrap, food packaging, and more. Our recycled products save tens of thousands of pounds of waste from entering landfills every year.”

Such an emphasis on the environmental side of bird-strike avoidance is not a detail. Hundreds of thousands of birds are killed every year because of aviation. And that’s a cost nobody in the airline business seems to take in account. Ironically, global warming caused the surge in certain species of large birds, like the Canadian goose. Global warming is partially caused because of our insatiable appetite for flying. So maybe the miracle on the Hudson was also a sign that we have to focus on cleaner transportation with less carbon dioxide emissions.