May 16, 2023 - Economy

Got a bird problem? Send in the (drone) hawks

One of the Drone Bird Company's models. Photo courtesy of The Drone Bird Company

Farmers, airport operators, pipeline operators and others looking to shoo away unwanted avian pests are turning to a suite of new high-tech tools, including drones designed to look like threatening hawks and lasers meant to humanely disperse crop-eating or airplane-threatening flocks.

Why it matters: Birds are a major economic threat to farmers — some of whom use anti-bird netting that can unintentionally trap or harm birds — a hazard for aircraft, and a nuisance to industrial sites.

  • The spread of avian flu, meanwhile, is giving some farmers and others new cause to keep wild birds at bay.

Driving the news: The Drone Bird Company has developed a fleet of partially 3D-printed drones that look like birds of prey, and are meant to scare away unwanted smaller birds.

  • While some of the company's models have flapping wings to simulate predators' movements, further testing revealed that they simply needed to match predators' speed and silhouette to be effective.
  • The company's birds can fly autonomously, but CEO Jan-Willem van den Eijkel says flying them manually is more effective — and users can even corral flocks in the desired direction.
  • "If you really want to chase birds — if you're just loitering, it's not enough, because the birds will know, 'okay, what's he doing?'" he says.

Case study: The company was recently hired by a blueberry farmer in Germany who lost about half of his 240 acre crop to starlings. The loss dropped to about 5% after using the company's drone.

  • "We were flying for him because he wasn't sure it was really worth his time and money," says van den Eijkel. "So I said, 'okay, we'll do this as a service for you.' But it's not scalable for me because I need too many pilots, et cetera."
  • "So I made the bird really user friendly. I teach people to fly in three to four days, and then they can fly themselves."

Yes, but: Some airport managers are still skittish about flying a drone around their runways, opting instead for air cannons and other anti-bird measures.

The intrigue: Bird-shaped drones could also be useful as military or espionage tools — harkening back to the days of wartime carrier pigeons.

  • The company's bigger birds "can carry a payload, like a thermal camera and RGB camera," says van den Eijkel. "And we use this as an unobtrusive espionage [device] ... basically because there is no [radar] signature."
  • "You operate at an altitude of like 500 feet. So if you would look up, you really have to stare at it for a long time to pick it out."

Meanwhile: Companies such as Bird Control Group and Bird-X have also developed high-tech lasers meant to annoy birds until they leave the area.

The bottom line: The era of the high-tech, 21st century scarecrow is here.

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