Robotic Raptors to the Rescue
3-D printed robotic replicas of the eagles and falcons may actually save flocks of smaller birds from harm. Here's how.
The ability to fly may be one of birds’ most enviable qualities, but it also makes them much more difficult to corral, even when it’s for their own good. While appropriate fencing may keep some land creatures safely away from the worst manmade hazards, such as waste management sites, the same does not work for our avian friends.
Enter the 3D-printed robotic bird of prey.
Designed by the Dutch company Clear Flight Solutions, the convincing imposters flap their wings and fly just like live avian predators. The “robirds” work like airborne, remote-controlled scarecrows, deterring live birds from venturing close to decidedly hazardous sites. Robirds indicate a definite shift from some of the more common methods of control—like culling wild birds near airports, placing chemicals on crops, or using loud noises to frighten flocks away
“From a biological point of view, the thing that triggers a bird’s instinct about a predator is the combination of silhouette and wing movement,” says Nico Nijenhuis, the company’s cofounder and CEO. The more convincing the robirds are as predators, the more likely they are to drive flocks away—which Nijenhuis wants to accomplish in key environments where birds shouldn’t fly.
Since Clear Flight Solutions launched in 2012 out of the University of Twente in the Netherlands, it has built two prototypes that look and fly just like two raptors—the Peregrine Falcon and the Bald Eagle. The company is currently testing them, and hopes to formally launch the birds in 2015.
These artfully painted creations are made of a 3D-printed nylon and glass fiber composite that encases a small battery-powered motor to propel the foam wings. Steered remotely by someone on the ground, robirds soar overhead like elegant toy planes, circling, dipping, and swerving, even in strong winds.
They’re shockingly realistic—see for yourself.
Nijenhuis has long held a love of all things airborne. “I’ve been fascinated with anything that can fly since the age of six,” he says. “I was always fascinated by the more extreme cases of flight,”—and Peregrine Falcons, some of earth’s fastest creatures, are an ideal example.
“The Peregrine Falcon model has a speed of 80 kilometers an hour,” Nijenhuis says, a feature based on the real creature’s immense talent for speed. The robirds’ quick, sharp wing flaps also mimic the Peregrine’s flight pattern, a crucial element.
One place robirds might make a difference? Airports. Globally, many thousands of birds die in collisions with airplanes each year, and the economic cost of these crashes likely totals $1 billion, according to Albert de Hoon, secretary of the World Birdstrike Association, which aims to improve aviation safety.
“Many airports are situated near coastline, wetlands and/or agricultural land, all being habitats where high numbers of birds are present,” de Hoon says. When birds—or clusters of birds—are sucked into engines, the results can be deadly for both the planes and the wildlife.
Currently, Nijenhuis and his team are working with several large international airports to test how to effectively to steer birds away from runways and planes.
Rather than running these initial trials at airports, where passenger-filled planes are constantly taking off, the company is first testing the robots at waste management facilities. So far, the avian imposters have had great success “hunting” their prey. Robirds have already reduced the number of wild birds at some sites by 75 percent. It’s a welcome decrease—birds that gather and eat from landfills and dumps spread disease, consume toxins, and can become a nuisance.
Nijenhuis sees their value in agriculture, too, where high-protein crops can be an easy meal for hungry birds. “We know stories of farmers having to sow their land three times over,” he says.
To increase the robirds’ efficacy, the company will continue honing them into closer approximations of real falcons and eagles. “The robirds really do need to fly at the birds; they need to attack the birds,” Nijenhuis says.
Wessel Straatman, a graduate student from the University of Twente, is tackling that task. He’s developing ways for robirds to navigate more independently, perhaps via GPS. “We’re working on increasing the amount of work the bird is going to do,” Straatman says. “The risk of computer error is smaller than the risk of human error, so adding automation in general makes it safer.”
Because the birds are steered from the ground and can fly for only short periods, they’ll be safer than even a live falcon trained to do the same task, because they’re easier to control and predict, says Nijenhuis. Automation will reduce the potential for error even further.
But as high-tech as they seem, Nijenhuis maintains that robirds’ success lies in their direct imitation of predator-prey relationships.
“Birds don’t care about our technological advancements; they care about nature,” he says.