High-tech radar installed to track birds at Sea-Tac Airport

  • Sun Jan 17th, 2010 8:32pm
  • News

Associated Press

SEATAC — Seattle-Tacoma International Airport has deployed a high-tech radar system to track birds at the airport — and a decidedly low-tech way to keep coyotes off the runways.

The radar system shows in real time where birds are around the airport, officials said Thursday.

“This technology will give us situational awareness of the entire airfield, day or night,” said Steve Osmek, Sea-Tac’s senior wildlife biologist. “It will be like wearing a huge pair of binoculars.”

The airport and University of Illinois researchers have been working on the system since 2007, Osmek said. Last month, the project was put into operation and linked to a portable laptop.

The system uses three radar units — two atop the airport’s office building and one near the runways. Osmek said it can track birds eight miles away and 3,000 feet up.

However, the technology can’t tell the size of the birds, so people still need to decide if they pose a risk to aircraft.

The radar also cannot tell the exact altitude of the birds.

When Osmek and his team see birds near the airport, they alert pilots and sometimes scare the birds away using pyrotechnics. But there are too many birds and too tight a flight schedule to take drastic measures, such as changing a plane’s route, Osmek said.

Last year, airplanes taking off and landing at Sea-Tac struck about 100 birds, airport spokesman Perry Cooper said, about the same number as in 2008.

As for coyotes, they’re being kept away from planes by a new fence surrounding the runways, Osmek said. The chain-link fence, completed Dec. 21, extends underground to prevent the animals from digging beneath it. Planes have hit coyotes while landing in each of the past two years.