New Technology Helps Airports Combat Wildlife Hazards

by Steven Apfelbaum

Airports present an inviting island of habitat in the landscape. Wildlife, particularly birds, are attracted to airports, and the local landscape often has bird attractants, such as stormwater ponds. Further, local habitats often sustain bird populations that commute between roosting and feeding areas. Unfortunately, these avian commuters fly across unobstructed airports and into the path of aircraft.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) statistics indicate that over 20 bird collisions with aircraft occur each day. To address this bird-strike problem, the FAA mandates wildlife hazard assessments and the development of wildlife hazard management plans that are intended to be regularly updated to reflect the latest risks due to wildlife on, and around, airports.

Scientists at Applied Ecological Services, Inc. (AES) have teamed with University of Illinois faculty in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Center of Excellence for Airport Technology (CEAT) to apply new technologies in airport safety management systems. This new tool helps airports deal more successfully with safety management needs, operating effectively and efficiently with infrastructure, runway and wildlife at low cost.

The solution AES proposes is simple: provide high-quality aerial photos that document wildlife attractants. AES has obtained new technology with a very high-resolution aerial camera. This camera, mounted on the bottom of a Cessna, is capable of distinguishing targets as small as a few inches during low and slow flights. It can provide airport managers and engineers with new information to improve airport safety.

Starting in the fall of 2012, AES has been using the high-resolution aerial imaging camera technology to establish baseline conditions for infrastructure, including pavements, lighting, buildings and other airport surface areas. The camera being used by AES is one of two defense-grade Leica Model RCD30 cameras available outside the military.

Steven Wanzek, airport manager, and Ted Gonsiorowski, assistant airport manager at the University of Illinois’ Willard Airport (CMI), have partnered with CEAT and AES to test the use of multi-spectral aerial imagery to improve environmental control around airport sites. With the support of university engineering faculty, CMI is becoming a test bed for imagery applications in a range of safety issues including wildlife hazard assessments. Willard Airport operations include airline services, flight training and fixed base operation services.

Dr. Edwin Herricks, coordinator of the Airport Safety Management Program in CEAT, is working with AES and many other airports on wildlife hazard assessments. Herricks uses the camera technology to map and address wildlife attractants for birds near and around airports. These attractants may influence commuter and migratory flights of birds.

The imagery shows clearly where wildlife uses the landscape by revealing animal trails and locations where animals cross beneath or over fences. The imagery, according to Dr. Herricks, is also very useful in updating GIS information.

In addition to applications in infrastructure management (such as documenting runway conditions), these images contribute directly to wildlife hazard management and environmental control around the airport site. The images also enable AES to map invasive plant species; water quality problems stemming from erosion; forested area tree diseases, such as Emerald Ash borer damage; and the identification and mitigation of wildlife attractants, in order to minimize bird strike risks.

It is often said that one picture is worth a thousand words. In this case, this unique camera technology produces an unparalleled image useful for areas of airport safety management, especially wildlife hazard mitigation.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Steven Apfelbaum is the founder and principal ecologist at Applied Ecological Services, Inc. (

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