This flappy bird-drone keeps airports safe

Look closely and you can see that the wings on this bird are attached slightly weirdly. That's because it's not a bird -- it's a drone. If that bird looks like your biggest predator, however, you wouldn't be looking closely; you'd be getting the hell out of there.

Remember that plane that landed in the Hudson which resulted in a Tom Hanks movie? That whole saga started with a flock of Canada Geese getting shredded through the plane’s jet engines, destroying them. By “them,” I mean both the birds and the engines, but for the purpose of this story, the latter is probably most relevant.

Birds at airports can be a terrifying ordeal, so you’d be unsurprised to hear that airports pay a pretty penny to keep the area around an airport clear. Clear Flight SolutionsRobird is a drone that flaps its wings and scares the bejesus out of other birds to keep aviation safe.

Traditionally, airports, fruit farms at harvest season and others have chased off birds by using a highly skilled falconer to fly a trained bird of prey in an area. Clear Flight Solutions’ Robird is the remote-controllable, doesn’t-need-feeding version of the same idea.

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“The theory is simple,” Wessel Straatman, one of the engineers behind the product tells me. “Birds know that birds of prey are territorial. When we fly Robird in an area, other birds learn that it’s dangerous to be there. As a result, they’ll avoid it, solving the problem for a period of time.”

Robird is designed to mimic a raptor. It flies by flapping its wings and steers by using two tail fins. It can even glide through the air for periods of time, just like a stalking bird of prey would do. This is combined with a pilot who knows what patterns birds use when they hunt, to help chase the birds away.

“We can actually drive birds in the direction we want,  much like a sheep dog can be used to control sheep,” the company’s operations manager Robert Jonker tells me. “It works incredibly well.”

The company has been working on perfecting a wing-flapping drone for 15 years, trialling its product in its native Netherlands. Now, it’s ready to go international.

Service model

“We don’t sell the Robird as products,” Straatman says of the 3D printed, hand-assembled drones, “but we offer their use as a service.”

The company is tight-lipped about how much it costs to hire its services, and is reluctant to share its precise pricing model.

“Every job is different, requiring us to travel somewhere. We use two people on each job: An observer and a pilot, and of course there are other considerations too, depending on the specifics of each assignment,” Jonker explains. He eventually suggests that a day of having a Robird scaring birds out of an area will set you back $1,000 – $1,500.

In theory, operating a fleet of Robirds is scaleable; you could build the drones faster than you could train a falcon, and you don’t have to feed it hamburgers, keep it warm or sing it lullabies when it’s its bed-time (obviously, yours sincerely knows a lot about the care and feeding of birds of prey).

In practice, I wonder whether needing a two-man crew and not selling the birds to pest control agencies may prove to limit the company’s growth. Especially, perhaps, because the logistics of serving the 16,000 square mile country of the Netherlands will be somewhat different to having to potentially cover 3,800,000 square miles in the U.S.

“We think we are ready to scale and we already have a lot of interest from military and international civil airports here in the U.S.,” Jonker tells me. He explains that Clear Flight Solutions would team up with a local partner who has the relevant licence to operate these types of drones for legal compliance purposes.

But really, all of this is just an excuse so I can post the video below. Let’s face it, what could be more awesome than a drone flying like a bird?