Lasers vs birds: new, high-tech ways to fend off aerial invaders

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Tired of having your ripening crop ruined by marauding magpie geese? Top End fruit-grower Han Shiong Siah was dead sick of it. So began his international quest for better bird deterrents.

Nuffield scholar and NT mango Han Shiong Siah test-flies Clear Flight Solutions' Robird, a drone cleverly designed to mimic a bird of prey.
Nuffield scholar and NT mango Han Shiong Siah test-flies Clear Flight Solutions' Robird, a drone cleverly designed to mimic a bird of prey.
Han Shiong Siah

Mango farmer Siah is one of a growing number of producers across Australia’s Top End who are fed up with finding that their ripening fruit has been destroyed or made worthless by hungry birds.

Further south are hundreds more disgruntled grain farmers, many of whom would pay good money for a way to fend off marauding white cockatoos. Not to mention the orchardists across southern Australia, who could cheerfully massacre the lorikeets that descend en masse and can decimate a stone-fruit crop in a day.  

Like thousands of orchardists before him, Siah had employed various strategies in his ongoing quest to deter magpie geese from pecking his fruit, to little avail. Siah, who runs a mango farm near Darwin, in Australia’s Northern Territory, was so determined to win the battle against the geese that he used his Nuffield Scholarship to take a research trip to the Netherlands, epicentre of bird-repelling tech.

He returned to the Top End in mid-2015 with the latest info on cutting-edge tools for keeping birds away from crops (and wind turbines) – including

* a new, high-tech tool called ROBIN Radar that can be used to detect and monitor approaching flocks;

* agri-drone prototypes resembling birds of prey that frighten birds big and small, developed by Clear Flight Solutions; and

* sophisticated agri-laser technology from the Bird Control Group, designed to keep birds from landing on crops.

ROBIN Radar

ROBIN’s sophisticated “bird detection systems” systems, the result of three decades of radar R&D, are purpose-built to yield accurate, continuous, real-time monitoring and logging of bird movements. Though most often deployed in flight safety, Dutch-developed ROBIN Radars can also be used to manage the environmental impact of wind farms, and in ecological research. This video explains how it works:

An airfield Siah visited on his reconnaissance trip to the Netherlands deploys ROBIN Radar to identify approaching flocks that can then be deterred using lasers and ‘noise projectiles’.

The radar itself may be of little use to mango growers, but could help large-scale cropping and orchard enterprises predict bird onslaughts and for monitoring bird-flock movements around existing and proposed wind farm sites.

AgriLaser®

Netherlands-based Bird Control Group initially developed its automatic lasers to keep birds away from airstrips. The company shifted its attention to agricultural models as the lasers became increasingly popular in the horticulture sector, says BCG founder Steinar Henskes,

Existing methods of preventing birds from devouring crops – typically, netting, deterrence and extinction – are as inhumane as they are inefficient, Henskes contends. The group’s focus is on finding effective, non-harmful ways to keep birds at safe distances from commercial, including agricultural activities.

BCG’s AgriLaser® Autonomic®, a fully automatic, patented system of bird repellent technology, deters birds and other creatures across an area of 12 square kilometres. Powered by batteries or grid electricity, it can be configured via remote control to cover a range of up to two kilometres in an almost-full rotation of 350°. The system has a vertical range of 120°, which means it can be deployed on hillsides, roofs and areas with substantial variations in elevation.

Dutch-based Bird Control Group's Agrilaser® Autonomic®: a cost-effective, safe and eco-friendly way to keep birds off your crops, 24-7.
Dutch-based Bird Control Group's Agrilaser® Autonomic®: a cost-effective, safe and eco-friendly way to keep birds off your crops, 24-7.
Bird Control Group

You can set it to repel birds from up to 16 different areas simultaneously, by day and/or night, customising laser-beam intervals so that specific parts of the crop are shined on for more time, or less.

The laser’s remote-control application, which allows users to configure and reconfigure the system to suit from afar, works on laptops and tablets. Every Agrilaser® is protected with a PIN code and emergency stops (at source and in the software), and can be secured in the field with a chain or ground anchor.

Users, so far, seem happy with the product: “After the deployment of the laser, it became a lot quieter,” says Dutch farmer Arnold Bosgoed. “The large groups of corvids disappeared... The system is noiseless and it seems that the birds do not get used to the laser beam. The installation was easy and it requires no maintenance.”

US blueberry farm Five-Star Family Growers in Auburndale, Florida, installed the AgriLaser® Autonomic® to control major problems with cedar waxwings. Since the installation, they say, there’s “little-to-no bird activity at the farm”. The video below was made by Bird Control US LLC, an American distributor of Agrilaser®, using a CFL www.CFLDrones.com drone:


Bird Control Group also makes a portable, handheld Agrilaser®, with a smaller range, for mobile operations.

Robird

Clear Flight Solutions (CFS) claim that its Robird – not yet available commercially, though the company’s happy to demonstrate them to interested parties – represents the most effective system of bird control in existence.

“Currently, no other means available…have such high success rates as the Robird,” the company claims.

Robirds are remotely controlled robotic birds of prey, designed to have "the appearance and weight of their living counterparts". They use flapping wing flight as a means of propulsion, and their flight performance, claim the makers, is comparable to that of real birds. CFS has developed two Robird prototypes: the falcon, which can be used to chase off birds up to three kilograms, and the eagle, which its makers say will scare off virtually any other species of bird.

It’s not surprising these birds-of-prey-bots do their job so well: they’re wing-flapping robot-replicas of two of the world’s top aerial predators.

The way the Robirds work mimics what happens in nature. “When a predator is introduced in an ecosystem, the system will adapt,” states CFS’s site. “Birds will learn to avoid the active hunting grounds of a bird of prey, with bird numbers dropping by as much as 50 percent or more, depending on the location and surroundings. Because the Robirds trigger the instinct of birds, there are no chances of habituation in the long term.”

It’s important to get the Robirds up and flying early, rather than waiting till marauding flocks descend.

“It absolutely pays off to start flying the Robird before large flocks arrive, weeks before harvesting starts,” the CFS states. “Scouts communicate the danger of a predator to the flock and they stay away from the orchards to avoid the impending doom of an imminent attack by a predator.”

Birds vs bots: the battle begins Down Under

As effective as they may be, Robirds are a fair way off. Beleaguered farmers like Siah can’t afford to wait until Robirds arrive Down Under. In the meantime, Bird Control Group’s high-tech lasers are looking pretty good.

Siah brought one of BCG’s AgriLaser® Autonomics® home to the NT. He’s been deploying the cutting-edge laser technology on his mango plantation in the lead-up to harvest, and is impressed by its efficacy and user-friendliness. 

"It doesn't require an operator, so you can just set a time and a pattern and it'll shine a laser when you want it to," Siah says.

Farmers fending off geese, galahs, lorikeets, white cockatoos and other avian pests take note: this simple, wallet-friendly technology could be the solution - at least while we wait for Robirds to migrate Down Under.

And it’s laser technology. Which makes it very cool.

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