Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Airports will test radar to alert pilots about bird danger

Some of the nation's busiest airports will soon begin testing experimental radar systems designed to track flocks of birds and help pilots avoid the type of collision that is thought to be what crippled a US Airways jet nearly two weeks ago.

Proponents say air-traffic controllers could someday use the technology to delay takeoffs, reroute flights before they leave the ground and perhaps even radio warnings to pilots to take evasive action.

The new technology uses a combination of inexpensive marine-radar antennas, much like the kind used on fishing boats, and powerful computer software to monitor birds as they gather and soar as far as six miles away from an airport.
The dangers were illustrated Jan. 15 when a US Airways jet lost thrust in both engines after it apparently smacked into a flock of birds 90 seconds into a flight from LaGuardia Airport. The pilot managed to guide the plane to a belly landing on the Hudson River, saving all 155 people aboard.

Executives at DeTect Inc., a Panama City maker of bird-detecting radar, said such systems might someday prevent accidents like that by letting controllers know when big groups of birds are getting close to a busy flight path.

Other experts and Federal Aviation Administration officials cautioned that the technology is unproven and still needs years of refinements. Still, it has shown enough promise that the FAA is expanding testing significantly.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which has been evaluating bird radar since mid-2007, deployed its third detector Friday. Chicago's O'Hare is slated to get one of the systems within six weeks. Dallas-Fort Worth, which took part in a previous round of testing, will see a more permanent installation within three months.

And last week, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey asked the FAA to consider installing the systems at all three of its major airports.

Even before the US Airways accident, one of those busy airports, Kennedy, was on the list of sites slated to get a unit in the coming months, but the Port Authority asked that the installation be accelerated and expanded.

Like weather advisories

Tim Nohara, president of radar-maker Accipiter of Ontario, Canada, said he envisions the systems working much like weather advisories, providing controllers and airport managers with a general sense of the presence of migrating birds in the area, rather than give specific information about an impending collision.

The technology is relatively cheap. A simple bird-radar system can be had for $500,000, about what it costs to replace a single engine knocked out by a bird. More expansive systems can cost $2 million or more.

The FAA began researching such technology nearly nine years ago, and experimental systems have been undergoing trials for several years at military airfields.