Engineers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have developed a new control algorithm that they say will allow a drone to autonomously herd flocks of birds away from an airport. According to the university, the project was inspired by the encounter with a flock of geese that resulted in US Airways Flight 1549 being forced to land in the Hudson River. To teach the drone to herd autonomously, the researchers studied flocking behavior and created mathematical models, then used those patterns to create the herding algorithm.
“When herding birds away from an airspace, you have to be very careful in how you position your drone,” said Soon-Jo Chung, an associate professor of aerospace in Caltech’s Division of Engineering and Applied Science and the principal investigator on the drone herding project. “If it’s too far away, it won’t move the flock. And if it gets too close, you risk scattering the flock and making it completely uncontrollable. That’s difficult to do with a piloted drone.”
One of the tricks, the researchers say, is getting the flock to move away from the airport without scattering. As shown in the video below, the algorithm uses how bird flocks respond to external threats to produce ideal flight paths for the drone. Although the team did design their own drone for the project, they found that a standard quadcopter was equally effective.
The bird-herding algorithm was tested in Korea and researchers “found that a single drone could keep a flock of dozens of birds out of a designated airspace” and that “the effectiveness of the algorithm is only limited by the number and size of the incoming birds.” Chung says the next step for the project is to create a system for multiple drones herding several bird flocks at the same time.