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Robins gets cannons to shoo birds

Noise cannons to scare birds at Robins demonstrated

Robins Air Force Base has installed a battery of 24 noise cannons around the runway to scare away birds, which can damage aircraft.
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Robins Air Force Base has installed a battery of 24 noise cannons around the runway to scare away birds, which can damage aircraft.

Birds are not welcome around the runway at Robins.

They can cause damage to aircraft and in some cases can even bring a plane down.

The base has long used a range of methods to keep birds away from planes taking off and landing, but now it has a new weapon in its arsenal. Starting last week the base began using a battery of 24 sound cannons set up around the vast runway area to shoo away birds.

The solar-powered cannons, which rotate to any direction, fire off a loud and startling boom that scares the birds but does not harm them. Some of the cannons are also equipped with speakers that mimic the sound of predatory birds known to the area, as well the sound of birds in distress. That's another method of scaring birds away.

Early indications are that the cannons are effective. The devices are used as needed, with certain personnel using handheld devices to trigger the cannons when they spot birds. An automated system wouldn't be effective because the birds would get used to the timing and wouldn't be afraid of it.

Shortly after the cannons went into operation, someone spotted a flock of vultures — one of the biggest threats to aircraft in this area — making themselves at home in a tree near the runway. Nearby cannons were fired and the flock departed. A large flock of black birds was also seen flying toward the runway. A cannon was fired and entire flock shifted course away from the runway, said Tech Sgt. Matt Miller, who works in the Installation Flight Safety Office.

Bird strikes happen regularly, but usually do not cause a serious problem. However, birds can cause damage to aircraft, including cracking wind screens, and may even cause a plane to crash. That can happen especially if one or more large birds get sucked into the engine.

One of the best known instances of that came in the Miracle on the Hudson plane crash in 2009 in New York. A commercial plane on takeoff struck a flock of Canada geese, lost all engine power, then glided to a landing in the Hudson River. Everyone survived, but there have also been fatal crashes caused by birds.

"Birds and aircraft don’t mix," said Marvin Griffin, the base's new airport wildlife biologist, as he showed how one of the cannons worked on Wednesday. "Birds do a lot of damage when impacted by an aircraft moving at a high rate of speed."

Also, an impact almost never turns out well for the bird.

Bird strikes happen most often on takeoff and landing, which is why it's considered important to keep them away from the runway. Griffin works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and his position is a new one at the base. He is specifically trained in the control of wildlife around airports.

Planes don't even have to be flying to be damaged by birds. Large planes such as the C-5 generate tremendous engine suction when revving up and can draw in birds without the plane moving.

"It's like a giant vacuum cleaner," Griffin said.

The base runs a comprehensive effort to keep all wildlife off the runway. Although birds are considered the biggest threat, a deer or wild hog on the runway is also bad. A fence surrounds the area and a road that runs through it near the forest on the east side of the base has a cattle guard, but animals can still get over it.

Among other methods to keep wildlife away, the grass is cut to a certain height. Cut too low it can attract certain birds or wildlife, and cut too high it can attract others.

"You can't prevent birds and wildlife," said Lt. Col. John Lipps, acting flight safety officer with Air Force Reserve Command, "so one of the keys is you just try to make it the least attractive place in the surrounding area."

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