Automated drones could scare birds away from farm fields

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In the future, cameras could spot blackbirds feeding on grapes in a vineyard and launch drones to hunt for avian irritants, then return to watch for the next invading flock. All without humans nearby.

A research team from Washington State University has developed such a system, which they detail in a study published in the journal Computers and electronics in agriculture. The system is designed to have automated drones available to patrol around the clock to deter pest birds, such as starlings or European crows, which cost growers millions of dollars a year in stolen or damaged fruit.

“Producers really don’t have a good tool they can rely on to deter pest birds at an affordable price,” said Manoj Karkee, associate professor in WSU’s Department of Biological Systems Engineering and corresponding author of the study. “With further improvements and partnerships with industry, this system could work.”

For the study, the team performed two separate tests: bird detection and automatic drone deployment. Within a few years, Karkee’s team developed a camera system and algorithm that would find birds and count them as they entered and exited fields.

The team customized very small drones and deployed them for flight testing in small plots with simulated birds.

Technologically, the system resembles drone parcel delivery systems. It will be several years before this particular technology is commercially available to growers, as several hurdles still remain, including making sure it works at scale, complies with federal drone regulations, and continues to deter birds even though drones are commonly flown.

“Birds are really smart,” said Karkee, who is also affiliated with WSU’s Center for Precision & Automated Agricultural Systems. “They often find ways around the deterrents. We don’t want a system that only lasts a few months or a few years before they stop being scared.”

For now, the birds are frightened only by the movements and the whirring of the drones. But Karkee said sounds, like distress calls or the sounds of predatory birds, could be added. Builders could even design special drones for the job.

“We could make the drones look like predators or have really bright reflective propellers,” he said. “All of these things working together would likely keep the birds away from these vineyards and fields. We need to research over several years to be sure.”

The automation research is the third in a series of three studies relating to drones and pest birds. The first showed that manually operated drones, performing random flights, were successful in chasing or scaring away birds from vineyards. They found that the drones reduced the number of birds by four.

The second project showed the impact bird hunting can have on crop yields. Karkee’s team followed the fields where they manually hunted the birds. These fields had about a 50% reduction in damaged fruit.

Karkee plans to meet with growers, technology companies and other stakeholders to begin the next steps of work toward a commercially available automated drone system.

“It takes time,” he said. “But the results so far are exciting. We look forward to working more on this project.”

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Materials provided by Washington State University. Original written by Scott Weybright. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.