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Cadets test sound-and-light system to deter bird strikes

Jan. 15, 2014 - 09:32PM   |  
Micah Rutherford, Ryan Thompson and Carlo Mancini, then Air Force Academy cadets, prepare to ground-test their Airborne BirdStrike Countermeasure system against Canada geese. The three are now active-duty officers.
Micah Rutherford, Ryan Thompson and Carlo Mancini, then Air Force Academy cadets, prepare to ground-test their Airborne BirdStrike Countermeasure system against Canada geese. The three are now active-duty officers. (Michael Kaplan/Rohmann Joint Ventures)
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For 10 months, a combination of flashing lights and lots of noise has kept Canada geese away from the Air Force Academy campus. Could the same system be used on planes to scare birds away and reduce damaging bird strikes?

That is a question senior academy cadets are trying to answer.

“So far, we believe we’re the only group to combine light and sound as a countermeasure for airborne platforms,” said Capt. Jeff Newcamp, the academy instructor overseeing the bird strike research.

Eighteen cadets during the past four semesters have been working on the research study, dubbed “Airborne BirdStrike Countermeasure,” to scare birds away during takeoffs and landings, when the majority of bird strikes occur. Eight cadets this semester hope to finish the research, supervised by the academy’s Aeronautics Research Center.

“The goal of this project is to reduce the amount of damages that occur to aircraft on an annual basis as much as possible,” said cadet Carson Fugal, the program manager for the project. “Right now, we’re looking at the business case analysis of how much we could save financially, and how much [the countermeasures] would cost.”

Bird and civil-aircraft collisions in the U.S. jumped from 1,748 in 1990 to 9,730 in 2011, according to a 2012 Federal Aviation Administration and Agriculture Department report. Damages amount to about $700 million annually to both military and commercial aircraft.

The inspiration behind the project comes from the “Miracle on the Hudson” incident in 2009, where academy graduate and then-U.S. Airways Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III, landed his airliner in the Hudson River. Sullenberger was piloting an Airbus 320 from New York’s LaGuardia Airport when his plane struck a large flock of Canada geese shortly after takeoff.

The cadets’ research so far shows that pilots aren’t distracted by the system’s lights and sounds in use on nearby planes, said cadet Blake Abrecht, discipline engineer for the research study.

“I [lead the] the audio and visual stimuli testing, where we’ve been using a Power Sonix speaker system ... to project the audio files that we’re testing with the geese, as well as the Airbus 320 light [system] to flash at these test subjects,” Abrecht said.

“It seems that our system would be a safe system to use for pilots,” Abrecht said.

But there’s still more work to be done before the study concludes in May.

While speakers already are used on some helicopters, members of the team are working on integrating the lights and sound system on a variety of aircraft to determine the best way to implement the system without degrading the aerodynamics of the aircraft.

The cadets also are trying to pinpoint how the sounds would carry at different speeds — because decibel intensity varies, depending on the aircraft and its speed.

“For safety reasons, we tested the speakers at 90 decibels to ensure that we weren’t damaging our eardrums,” Abrecht said. “But the [speakers] are capable of 135 decibels, so when it’s being used on an aircraft, it may be turned to a higher decibel level.”

The cadets put the speaker inside a wind tunnel and tested the audio output and frequencies, Fugal said. They amped up the wind tunnel to 225 knots to see how the sound moved. Birds can hear between 1,000 to 4,000 hertz, and so far, it looks like 2,000 hertz will be “the frequency that is most viable,” Fugal said.

Field testing is ongoing around the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., and nearby towns, and the cadets are awaiting approval to test at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.

The first time the team used the combination of light and sound testing was a milestone for the cadets, Newcamp said.

“It was March 13, 2013, and since that test, the Canada geese have not returned to the Air Force Academy,” Newcamp said. “We hypothesize that this test brought us a really successful result, and we’re expanding to other locations to see if we get the same result.”

Once the business case analysis is concluded, the cadets hope to publish their study, Fugal said. At the end of the semester, the team will present its research to biologists, the Agriculture Department and military and civilian researchers, Newcamp said.

The published study will be available to airlines, military sources and the Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard office at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.

If further study is approved for aircraft use, the system would go on to flight testing at the Air Force’s test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

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