Birds vs. planes. It’s a battle being waged in the skies, over airports across the country. Bird strikes occur on a daily basis in the United States, creating a growing safety hazard for travelers.
Now the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit has learned that there’s an emerging technology, proven to reduce those collisions, that the Federal Aviation Administration continues to ignore, according to at least two Congressmen. And the pair are on a mission to make the FAA adopt this new aviation radar.
Avian radar can spot and even predict the presence of large birds around airports. The system is already being successfully used by NASA, the military, and in countries around the world. Still the FAA has yet to install the technology at commercial airports here domestically.
“The fact is, with the increasing incident of bird strikes, we’ve got to do something more than what we’re doing currently,” Congressman Jim Moran (D-Va) told NBC Bay Area.
Concerned by the rising trend, Moran sent a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta addressing the issue.
The letter, signed along with Congressman Joseph Crowley (D-NY), raises concerns that this “valuable tool” still isn’t being used “at our commercial airports” more than 3 years after an FAA commissioned report showed how effective avian radar can be.
“We ought to use the technology that’s available,” Moran said. “Other countries have figured out how to deal with this but here in the United States all we do is say let’s go kill all the birds? Its ineffective and frankly its inhumane.”
When it comes to preventing bird strikes, the Investigative Unit found that it’s a topic most Bay Area airports don’t like to discuss. NBC Bay Area sent a request to the FAA asking why the technology has not been adopted in the United States, however the agency did not elaborate other than say it is currently in use at Sea-Tac and DFW.
Airport wildlife managers routinely shoot and kill birds that gather around runways in order to keep them from colliding with airplanes that are landing or taking off.
NBC Bay Area first began looking into the issue in 2013, after a peregrine falcon was shot at San Francisco International Airport. While the airport never figured out who shot the falcon, records from SFO show that from 2011-2012, wildlife management officials killed 964 birds, as part of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife program designed to reduce bird strikes.
During the same time frame, between 2011 and 2012, officials at Oakland International Airport killed 2,375 birds.
San Jose Mineta began shooting birds in 2013, and killed 12 birds in the first month of its program.
Despite these efforts, collisions between birds and airplanes continue to rise here in the Bay Area and nationwide.
Seattle Tacoma International was the first airport in the U.S. to install avian radar. Sea-Tac is currently one of only two domestic airports using the system, along with Dallas/Fort Worth International.
“We’re finding out that this one is working out really well,” Sea-Tac wildlife biologist Steve Osmek told NBC Bay Area.
The radar equipment costs the airport an approximate $60,000 a year to operate – a nominal cost for airport staff to improve safety.
“When we get a bird persistence, that’s when we get an alert,” Osmek explained.
Seatac served as one of seven test demonstration sites in 2011. The other six were military installations.
The bird detection system was designed by Canadian company Accipter Radar Technologies. It’s a tool that this 2011 report funded by the FAA, shows can reduce bird strikes, without firing live rounds near the runway.
“With the advancement of the programs and the algorithms that can pull this information out, what I hope to get to in the future, is a wildlife forecast in the same way we have weather forecast today,” Osmek said.
Osmek demonstrated for NBC Bay Area, the radar’s ability to detect a single redtail hawk, hanging out near runway 1-6.
The bird’s presence sent off a yellow alert, dispatching airport ground crews to respond and disperse all birds in the area.
In addition to radar, Osmek and his team also use live traps and extensive netting over retention ponds.
Even so, the airport was forced to kill 853 birds in 2012, but they say they don’t shoot predatory birds. Those birds are trapped in a travel pen, then driven 70 miles away and be released into the forest.
Critics of the FAA argue that the success of avian radar at airports like Sea-Tac is proof that wildlife can be saved while also keeping it from colliding with aircrafts.
“I want the Federal Aviation Administration to understand that there’s a far better way than simply slaughtering all birds that they happen to be able to find. It’s ineffective and it’s not working,” Moran said.
Avian radar is also currently in use at airports in India, Israel and South Africa.