'This Robot Is the Latest Weapon in the War on Birds'

Four years after the "Miracle on the Hudson," a higher-tech way to combat bird strikes

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Airline passengers wait to board a ferry to be rescued after their US Airways Airbus 320 jetliner ditched in the frigid waters of the Hudson River in New York. (AP / Steven Day)

Remember the Miracle on the Hudson? It happened four years ago today. And it happened because of birds. US Airways Flight 1549 had just taken off from New York's La Guardia Airport when, still climbing, it collided with a flock of Canadian geese. The bird strike caused both of the plane's engines to lose thrust, and the vehicle -- piloted by the about-to-become-famous Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger -- was forced to land on the improvised runway that was the Hudson River. 

The "miracle" of the landing, of course, was that the plane made it successfully. The only fatalities involved in the incident, ultimately, belonged to birds.

Four years after that, a bird strike -- sometimes also called a Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard, or BASH -- remains a rare but destructive phenomenon. Which makes it one of those ironies that speak to the frailty of human technology: All the knowledge embedded in an aircraft -- all the physical prowess, all the digital nuance -- can still be thwarted by a coincidental collusion with birds. To the extent, per one estimate, that our feathered friends can cause more than a billion -- billion, with a b -- dollars' worth of damage to aircraft in a single year. 

But that could be changing: Bird strikes could soon become a thing of the past. Researchers in South Korea have developed a mobile device that uses a combination of tracking software, microphones, and lasers -- yes, lasers -- to detect birds and then scare them away from airport runways. "This robot," Scientific American puts it in the video below, "is the latest weapon in the war on birds." 

The war on birds! I did not know this war existed, but if it did, the new device would make a pretty effective weapon to have on our side. We already have, sure, anti-avian technology for air fields, much of it military in origin -- which ranges from the relatively high-tech (radar, pyrotechnics) to the relatively low- (dogs, "fearsome falcons"). But one of the big benefits of the new system, its creators say, is that it's both semi-autonomous and mobile -- it's a sort of human-controlled, laser-wielding tank -- so it can follow the birds as they travel. (It seeks them out according to the sounds they make.) Another benefit? The robo-scarecrow makes sounds that birds are afraid of -- gunshots, replications of squealing predators -- and thus that they'll instinctually fly away from. 

More unfortunately for the birds, the robot also comes equipped with a failsafe: If the machine's scary sound emissions aren't doing the trick, the roving device has a laser that is capable of streaming beams of radiation toward the creatures. Which could mean some very frightened birds ... and, for the humans that emulate them, slightly safer air travel.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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