If you pay attention to airplane news — or you watched the film Sully — you know planes have problems with birds. Sully was about US Airways flight 1549 which struck a flock of geese and ditched in the Hudson river. Engineers at Caltech say that was the inspiration for them to develop a control algorithm that enables a single drone scarecrow to herd flocks of birds away from airports.
Airports have tried a lot of things to discourage birds ranging from trained falcons to manually-piloted drones. Apparently, herding birds is harder than you would think. If you fly the drone too far from a flock, it will ignore the threat. If you get too close, the flock will scatter making it both threaten a larger area and harder to control.
Looking at the math in the paper, it is interesting to see how they used studies of flock movement, defined the problem, and developed both the mathematical models and an algorithm. They actually did real-world tests with both egrets and loons, as well as simulations.
We usually think of airports as a no-fly zone for drones, but could we see officially-sanctioned drones around airports soon? Maybe, but there’s a long way to go from these mathematical models to a practical system. You’d need to identify bird flocks reliably. Most drones don’t have a lot of stamina, and internal combustion engine-powered drones are noisy. It could take a fair number of drones to keep surrounding an airport at all hours.