SEA-TAC AIRPORT - There are two radars at Sea-Tac airport that don't track planes - they track birds. A small bird hit at hundreds of miles per hour can cause damage and the bigger the bird or a flock of birds, the bigger the threat.
The power of birds to bring down an aircraft was demonstrated clearly in 2009, when a U.S. Airways A320 flew into a flock of large birds, which caused both engines to lose power. The pilots ditched into New York's Hudson River. All on board survived without major injuries.
Sea-Tac's been one of the key airports in a study by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and funded by the FAA to find a better way to track and avoid bird strikes by airplanes.
In the airport's operations center, a monitor shows a top down view of the airport overlaid by a grid. A section or sections of that grid will turn yellow when a persistent bird threat is detected. Ramp patrol agents are then dispatched to those sectors to use noise makers to disperse the birds. Some bird behavior is expected and they're often out in position before the warnings even come, typically in the early morning.
That's the culmination of six years of research that started in 2007. In it, scientists like Airport Wildlife Manager and biologist Steve Osmek, along with technical specialist Pete Lazar from the University of Illinois, try and find the best balance for the radar warnings - a system sensitive enough to detect fuzz cast off from cottonwood trees. The idea is to set it to avoid false alarms while warning of birds that could cause real problems. The system is set to alert to birds the size of crows and larger.
By 2014, it's hoped the bird radar can be ready to deploy in airport towers, to warn pilots of bird threats.