Opinion please – Wild goose chase

Schiphol wants to monitor geese with radar. The airport made this announcement after an airplane was forced to make an emergency landing last Sunday after a goose flew into one of its engines.

Birds are a real pest for Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. The airport fights the animals in every way it can, including by sending falcons and hordes of barking border collies into the surrounding fields to chase off geese, seagulls, starlings and pewits. Bird watchmen also shoot at the birds with blanks, and the airport has even stationed inflatable scarecrows in the fields.

Geese especially are a problem, since they’re hard to scare. Radar is now the latest weapon the airport is using against the birds. TU Delft alumnus, Addy Borst, of the research institute TNO, is one of the leading researchers in this new project. “With radar equipment we can see geese at ten kilometres distance”, he says. “Until recently one of the major challenges however was to be able to process the huge amount of reflection data obtained from flocks of birds.” Computers simply were not powerful enough to process all the data in real time, according to Borst. No longer. Borst intends to map the birds’ most frequently used flight paths. This knowledge should enable the airport and the government to take more appropriate measures, such as, for instance, making the birds’ most popular sites less attractive to them. “And we can also use the radar to warn airplanes that are still on the ground if we see a flock of birds coming their way. The planes would then wait for 20 seconds or so until the birds have passed. Birds are particularly dangerous for airplanes that are taking off, since at that moment the planes need maximum power.”

Maurizio Porfiri, a researcher at New York University, might one day present a completely different solution, however. He recently revealed to the world a robotic fish that can lead schools of fish. Porfiri says fish decide on whether to school or not based on what they see and the flow they feel. Fish leaders beat their tails faster, mill about, accelerate to gain attention, gather a school, and then lead it. Porfiri’s robotic fish mimics that behaviour. The American researcher hopes that someday bird robots could also lead flocking birds to new grounds.

But dr. David Lentink, who works as a biologist at Wageningen University, and as an airplane engineer at the faculty of Aerospace Engineering, believes this is nonsense. He developed a robot bird himself a few years ago that looks like a swift. He wants to use it to study bird behaviour, among other tasks.

“Birds are much cleverer than fish”, Lentink says. “Saying you will develop a robot bird that leads flocks is engineering talk.”

Creating robot birds that would chase away other birds is another option. Schiphol experimented with a robot hawk a few years ago, but one of the reasons the airport stopped deploying this hawk was that it was very labour-intensive to continuously steer the bird by remote control. And another problem: the finicky geese eventually got bored of this flybot.

De reis is nu echt begonnen, schrijft kapitein Richard Slootweg van de Stad Amsterdam. Op 1 september verliet de klipper, in navolging van Charles Darwin op HMS Beagle 178 jaar eerder, de haven van Plymouth voor een reis om de wereld. Vrijwel alle universiteiten haakten aan bij dit grootste mediaproject uit de vaderlandse geschiedenis. De TU zal in maart 2010 aanmonsteren. Dr. Bert Vermeersen (L&R) vaart dan mee vanaf Perth, Australië naar Mauritius. Aan boord zal hij met gps het zeeniveau meten. Door verschillende dichtheden in de aardkorst vertoont de oceaan namelijk flinke kuilen. Met eigen ogen zien hoe de aarde ervoor staat, is de missie die het project Beagle van VPRO, Teleac en Canvas zich heeft gesteld. Te volgen via internet en televisie.

Zondag 13 september, 21.20 uur, Nederland 2.

Editor Redactie

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