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Automated Drones Could Scare Birds Away from Agricultural Fields

A team of researchers from Washington State University created just such a system, which they describe in a study published in the journal Computer and Electronics in Agriculture. The system is designed to have automated drones patrolling 24 hours a day to deter pest birds like European starlings and crows, which cost growers millions of dollars in stolen or ruined fruit each year.

Shivam Dwivedi
Automated Drones Could Scare Birds Away from Agricultural Fields
Automated Drones Could Scare Birds Away from Agricultural Fields

A research team has developed a system in which cameras detect pest birds in vineyards or orchards and launch drones to drive the avian irritants away, then return to monitor for the next invading flock. All without the presence of a human.

A team of researchers from Washington State University created just such a system, which they describe in a study published in the journal Computer and Electronics in Agriculture. The system is designed to have automated drones patrolling 24 hours a day to deter pest birds like European starlings and crows, which cost growers millions of dollars in stolen or ruined fruit each year.

"Growers don't really have a good tool they can rely on for deterring pest birds at an affordable price," said Manoj Karkee, associate professor in WSU's Department of Biological Systems Engineering and lead author of the study. "With further refinement and industry collaboration, this system has the potential to work."

The team conducted two separate tests for the study: detecting birds and automatically deploying drones. Karkee's team spent several years developing a camera system and algorithm that would detect and count birds as they flew in and out of fields.

The team built very small drones and tested them in flight on small plots with simulated birds.

The system is technologically similar to drone package delivery systems. It will be several years before this technology is commercially available to growers because several hurdles remain, including ensuring that it works at scale, complies with federal drone regulations, and continues to deter birds even when drones are frequently flying around.

"Birds are extremely intelligent," Karkee, who is also affiliated with WSU's Center for Precision & Automated Agricultural Systems, said. "They frequently find ways to circumvent deterrents." We don't want a system that only works for a few months or years before they become unconcerned."

For the time being, the motion and whirring noises made by drones are enough to scare the birds away. However, Karkee stated that sounds such as distress calls or predatory bird noises could be added. Builders could even create custom drones for the job.

Karkee intends to meet with growers, technology firms, and other stakeholders to discuss the next steps in developing a commercially available automated drone system. "It takes time," he admitted. "However, the preliminary results are promising." We're excited to continue working on this project."

The automation study is the third in a three-part series on drones and bird pests. The first demonstrated that manually operated drones flying at random successfully drove off or kept birds away from vineyards. They discovered that drones cut bird counts in half.

The second project demonstrated the impact of bird control on crop yield. Karkee's team returned to the fields where they manually drove the birds away. Damaged fruits were reduced by approximately 50% in those fields.

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