Remember the "Miracle on the Hudson," that gilded news story about Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger III splash-landing in New York's Hudson River? The whole debacle went down because some errant geese smashed into the Airbus minutes after takeoff, forcing the crew to bail in the river as smoothly as possible.
Nobody was harmed in the Miracle on the Hudson (thus the "miracle" part), but airplane bird strikes are frighteningly common, and usually dangerous. Over 250 people have been killed after these collisions since 1988, and they cause an estimated one billion dollars in damage to aircraft worldwide. And of course, the birds themselves rarely survive playing chicken with an airplane, which is an added bummer.
Fortunately, a Dutch robotics company called Clear Flight Solutions has a potential answer for the bird strike conundrum. Founded in 2012, the company has been 3D printing robotic birds of prey, or "robirds," designed to scare the hell out of birds around airports, wind turbines, and other places that these oblivious fliers endanger themselves and others.
Basically, these remote-controlled raptor drones are like airborne scarecrows, taking the form of bald eagles and peregrine falcons. The verisimilitude between their flight behavior and that of real raptors is kind of uncanny, as you can see for yourself in this video of the peregrine falcon model.
That falcon drone can travel at speeds of 50 miles per hour, and is designed to scare away birds weighing up to 6 pounds. The eagle model, however, can chase off a bird of any size, because no bird wants to fuck with an eagle.
"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," said Clear Flight Solutions' co-founder and CEO Nico Nijenhuis in an interview with Audubon. "Birds don't care about our technological advancements; they care about nature."
In other words, birds aren't going to stick around to investigate whether these raptor drones are made from feathers and blood like themselves. If they did, they'd discover that the robirds are constructed from 3D-printed nylon and glass fiber composite surrounding a battery-powered motor that powers the wings.
But even if the robirds were to encounter a particularly daring opponent, it would still behave like a regular raptor. "The robirds really do need to fly at the birds; they need to attack the birds," Nijenhuis told Audubon. Robot or not, a bird of prey must hunt if it's to maintain its allure.
Clear Flight Solutions is already in talks with several international airports about implementing their raptor drones, and the founders hope to start selling them to the public in 2015. Until then, they are testing the efficacy of robobirds in less hazardous areas, like landfills.
Indeed, waste management is another area that could really use some faux fliers. Landfills and other waste treatment centers are a veritable bird buffet. Terrestrial scavengers are easier to manage, but it's much trickier to keep avian species off the grounds. These garbage-loving birds spread disease, scatter waste, and often harm themselves by eating plastics and other toxins.
That's why most of the preliminary testing of the raptor drones has taken place in landfills, and the results have been very positive. In some cases, the wild bird population was decreased by 75 percent. No more free trashy lunches for the birds, and that's positive for everyone involved, no matter the species.
But landfills aren't the only areas birds hit up for a quick bite, which is why Clear Flight Solutions also anticipates interest from agricultural developers. The battle between the hardworking farmer and the pilfering bird is as old as agriculture itself, and traditional scarecrows just aren't cutting it.
"We know stories of farmers having to sow their land three times over," Nijenhuis said in the Audubon interview. Launching a few predatory raptor drones, however, might make birds think twice about chowing down on crop fields, lest they be chowed down themselves. Or maybe just once. They're birds, after all. Ruminative decision-making is only not a strong point for most of them (excepting crows, those creepy brainiacs).
Beyond all of the utilitarian applications for the raptor drones, the models themselves are aesthetically stunning. When orders open to the public next year, anyone will be able to purchase their very own custom robobird. So if you've always wanted to be a falconer-lite—and who hasn't?—this is your chance.