Bird strikes – common event and safety challenge for the aviation industry

“Before the discovery of Australia, people in the Old World were convinced that all swans were white, an unassailable belief as it seemed completely confirmed by empirical evidence. The sighting of the first black swan might have been an interesting surprise for a few ornithologists (and others extremely concerned with the coloring of birds), but that is not where the significance of the story lies. It illustrates a severe limitation to our learning from observations or experience and the fragility of our knowledge. One single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans. All you need is one single (and, I am told, quite ugly) black bird.” states Nassim Taleb, in his bestseller The Black Swan.

Taleb associates Black Swans with the unexpected events, which could change our lives and the way we think and behave. There have been quite of few Black Swans in the aviation industry in the past, ridiculously, one of them associated with a collision between birds and airplane.

Wildlife has brought variety of safety challenges since the emergence of modern aviation. Nowadays, due to the constantly increasing air traffic, collisions between birds and airplanes are one of the most serious hazards that most of the airports around the world have to face to certain extent. Although, there are thousands of bird strikes per year which do not cause significant damages to the airplane (we cannot say the same for the birds), a single “Black swan” like the famous water landing in the Hudson River of US Airways flight 1549 after a bird strike, could become a significant disaster, endangering human lives and bringing substantial expenses and legal obligations.

Most of the bird strikes are usually occurring when the airplane is cruising at low altitude, therefore, the airport environment, mainly the runways, surrounding areas and ascending and descending paths, are considered as the most dangerous zones for bird strikes. Furthermore, this also involves the most critical phases of a flight, namely take-off and landing, explains Ludmil Manassiev, former director “Airports, Aviation Security and Air Navigation Services Directorate”, CAA Bulgaria.

The direct costs of a bird strike could be significant, starting at $16,000 for a new CFM56 engine blade and going up to $5million for a new engine. Including the other associated repair costs, the damage could swell up to $6 million. And as it is commonly accepted within the aviation industry the indirect costs such as flight delays, out-of-service cost, passenger compensations, aircraft replacement, etc., are always greater than the direct ones.

Nowadays, variety of mitigation methods have been implemented, including bird monitoring equipment, shotguns, gas cannons, scarecrows, etc., however, the avian species are adapting very quickly and get accustomed to their effects. Therefore, they cannot provide a long-term solution. Even lethal methods, shooting and trapping the birds, have been implemented in the New York City area, after the bird strike of flight 1549 in 2009, resulting in more than 70000 birds killed in an attempt to provide a safer environment for the airplanes. However, the outcomes from this program are highly controversial, since it has not been proven that these measures made any difference.

Realizing the complexity of the problem, Volacom, a high-tech company based in Europe, focused on developing a reliable and efficient bird control solutions for airports. By combining its technological capabilities and experience with the expertise of research institutes in Europe and the United States, together with industry experts and consultants, Volacom have created and patented a unique high-tech solution, tailor-made to meet the specific needs of each client, bringing the airport safety to the next level.

The Bird Collision Avoidance System (BCAS) provides fully automatic detection, recognition and tracking of detected objects by panoramic thermal imaging cameras, working 24/7 at all weather conditions. Furthermore, an acoustic device responds to every detection of avian object within the area by sending a focus signal toward the direction of the birds, thus deterring them from the protected zones. The system includes specialized software, designed for airport application and all the necessary features for an effective habitat management, data processing and regular reporting.

Among the unique features of the system is the proprietary acoustic deterrence signal called ASR – Acoustic Startle Reflex. The exceptional quality of this patented by Volacom approach is that it influences the birds in such a way that they cannot habituate to it. Furthermore, it has been proven by extensive laboratory experiments that the birds become even more sensitive to the sound with every consecutive exposure, without causing any harassment or adverse effect. Last but not least, the signal is also diversity effective.

Safety is always been a focal point to the aviation industry. Variety of safety systems such as Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems (TCAS), Instrument Landing Systems (ILS), Ground Proximity Warning Systems (GPWS), have been developed in order to prove the aviation as the safest mode of transportation. Now, it is time to engage the different stakeholders and take proactive measures by implementing an effective Bird Collision Avoidance System (BCAS), the cost of which could be way below most of the damages of one serious bird strike.

During the month of November, Volacom together with its trading partner TBS, will be presenting the full spectrum of capabilities of the BCAS technology at the Dubai Airshow (12-16 November). The company is welcoming any industry professional who is interested to learn more about the approach for making an airport a safer place for passengers, crews and property in terms of bird strikes.