Sea-Tac Helps Pioneer Bird Radar

Kimberly Kaiser
Published in: 

One of Sea-Tac's three avian radars is positioned on the airfield between two runways.

Aircraft aren't the only things flying around airports. In the United States alone, more than 7,000 bird/aircraft collisions are reported annually to the Federal Aviation Administration. Many of the strikes produce costly damage. All present a safety risk.

"From the standpoint of public safety, planes and birds don't mix," says Perry Cooper, media officer at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac)

That's one of the reasons Sea-Tac is participating in a research project with the Center of Excellence for Airport Technology (CEAT) to study the problems birds cause at civil airports. CEAT, an FAA-designated Center of Excellence at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, also performs research on other airport safety issues such as pavements and foreign object debris detection.

Sea-Tac was chosen as a partner in CEAT's bird detection project because of its strong wildlife program - one of the oldest in the United States, notes Cooper. Back in the 1970s, the airport began employing a full-time biologist to develop an ecological approach to maintaining aviation safety and protecting wildlife. The current biologist's responsibilities have since evolved to include promoting wildlife conservation of certain non-hazardous species.

Steve Osmek

With CEAT's assistance, Sea-Tac began using digital radar to detect and track birds in mid-2007. One radar system is positioned to cover aircraft approach and departure paths, with dual sensors detecting at different altitudes.

A second system is positioned to provide coverage of the airport from ground level to a few thousand feet.

The radars only sample a volume defined by the system's antenna so not every bird on the airport is picked up, notes Sea-Tac biologist Steve Osmek. Specialized radar antennas scan a cone of space defined by the tilt angle of the antenna. Integrating radar detections on a single screen provides an overall sense of the level of bird activity on and around the airport.

Because avian radar systems are a new technology at civil airports in the United States, it's important to learn about deployment issues and validate their performance over time at a busy airport, notes Edwin Herricks, coordinator of the CEAT Airport Safety Management Research Program and a professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Facts & Figures

Project: Avian Radar

Location: Seattle-Tacoma International

Project Partners: FAA, Center of Excellence for Airport Technology, Port of Seattle

Project Cost: $2 million/year

Equipment: Accipiter Radar Technologies

Benefits: Real-time awareness of bird traffic and ability to predict bird flight patterns, which will ultimately reduce bird/aircraft collisions.

Assessing the Data

Installing the radars at Sea-Tac was only the beginning of the project, notes Osmek. Much has been learned about bird movement since the radars began collecting information.

A major part of CEAT's assessment is validating that radar detections are, in fact, birds. Because radar also picks up other flying objects, digital processing is a key element to avian radar performance. The project currently uses equipment from Accipiter Radar Technologies that provides geographic displays of bird activity on Google Earth maps.

Although radar has been used to detect birds since its development, industry began developing digital avian radars in the mid-1990s, reports Dr. Tim J. Nohara, president and CEO of Accipiter Radar. "Seattle has really pioneered the integration of these [avian radars] into real operations at airports," Nohara notes.

Development of the technology, however, experienced a few challenges along the way. Radar performance is based on energy reflecting back off the target, he explains. Therefore, the smaller the target, the weaker the radar echo.

"We are dealing with small, uncooperative targets," he relates. "Birds will do what they will, and during migration there can be hundreds to thousands moving at once. It would be nice if they could wear a nice little tracking bracelet, but that's not an option."

Dr. Tim J.  Nohara

According to Herricks, the sensor on avian radar is the same as other radars; how the signals are interpreted in relation to what is being detected makes them different. He compares it to listening to a Spanish radio station if you don't speak Spanish. "You hear lots of noise, but you need to understand Spanish to be able to interpret what the sounds mean," he explains.

In the CEAT study, radar detects lots of flying objects. The processors sort out birds from the other targets that are detected and only interpret and display the birds. Early on, the sensor settings regularly picked up insects as well as birds, recalls Cooper. By adjusting the digital processors, personnel were able to make the radar display only "targets of interest."

"Radar technology has sort of come full circle," observes Cooper. "Originally, it was trying to eliminate getting birds; now we only want the birds."

Operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Sea-Tac's avian radars collect about one terabyte of data per year, reports Herricks.

"As we collect more data by season, we can identify trends and predict what will happen in the future, much like weather predictions," explains Osmek.

Personnel, for instance, observed a pattern of movement by a large flock of starlings. "When they leave their nest, they all leave together," explains Cooper. "They leave within 20 minutes of sunrise every morning and return within 20 minutes of sunset each evening."

Identifying trends and being able to make wildlife forecasts helps personnel working in airport operations, Osmek notes. At Sea-Tac, it also proved helpful in October, when Animal Planet was filming at the airport. The flock took flight right on schedule, as if responding to a director's cue.

"We're not only learning new things, but we can go back and find patterns and discover something new about how birds use airports," says Herricks. "It's not a trivial exercise; it requires a lot of effort and a lot of analysis and learning."

Beyond Seattle

Left: Two of Sea-Tac's avain radar sensors sit atop the Airport Office Building.  Right: Geese flying over one end of Sea-Tacs airfield are captured by the radar.

CEAT assesses the performance of airport bird radars in three phases: deployment, validation and operational evaluation. Sea-Tac is currently starting the operational evaluation phase.

Before an airport can begin the operational evaluation phase, CEAT needs to be sure that the radar is supplying valid information. Operational assessment can begin when the airport staff is comfortable using radars, explains Herricks. "The radar is a tool, providing information to airport personnel, and we need to fully assess operational utility," he says. "The operational assessments will continue simultaneously with additional validation efforts and our understanding of radar performance continues to progress."

CEAT wants a minimum of two years data for each airport participating in the study. Although FAA funding for the project is provided on a year-by-year basis, he expects the assessment program to continue for a few more years.

The current project costs about $2 million per year. Fully half of the expenses are provided by in-kind contributions of participating airports and technology suppliers. According to Herricks, radar installation alone costs $150,000 to $600,000, depending on a system's sophistication and connectivity.

Currently, the CEAT project also has operational Accipiter radars at John F. Kennedy International in New York and at Chicago's O'Hare International. MARS radar, developed by Geo-Marine, will be deployed at Dallas/Fort Worth International in mid-2010.


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