Japan ministry using DNA samples to prevent bird strikes

Japan ministry using DNA samples to prevent bird strikes
The US Airways jetliner that ditched in the Hudson River in New York in 2009 is said to have had both engines shut down by a bird strike.
PHOTO: Reuters

As part of their measures to reduce the number of bird strikes, in which birds collide with airplanes, the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry is collecting blood and tissue samples from collisions at airports nationwide and conducting DNA tests to determine what species of birds were involved in the incidents.

By identifying the birds in the incidents, the ministry aims at taking concrete steps to prevent bird strikes, taking into account species-specific behaviour. Responding to a series of bird strikes, the parties concerned hope the new steps will lead to a highly effective solution.

The number of bird strikes has been increasing in recent years, with 1,967 cases reported in 2014. Species most often found to be the cause include swallows, starlings and sparrows, but in many cases the birds leave no residue at the site of impact, resulting in more than half of the cases being recorded as "species undetermined."

Bird strikes not only damage the fuselage, but also can potentially cause serious emergencies, such as abnormal engine output if the birds pass into the engine.

The US Airways jetliner that ditched in the Hudson River in New York in 2009 is said to have had both engines shut down by a bird strike.

Airports across the nation are taking measures to prevent bird strikes in their airspace, such as driving away birds with threatening sounds and conducting radar monitoring, but none have proven to be dramatically effective.

According to a major airline, "In some cases, repairs may cost tens of millions of yen for one aircraft, and will result in cancelled flights, inconveniencing passengers."

In response, the ministry started conducting preliminary tests in February 2010 at the 17 government-managed airports most prone to bird strikes, examining several dozen bird strike cases in which fuselages were damaged.

However, as the result of a national increase in species-undetermined cases and local differences in migratory patterns and species, the ministry has decided that geography and climate need to be taken into account when devising preventive measures. In October this year, the ministry added 56 airports managed by local municipalities and corporations to the programme, expanding it to 73 locations.

Specifically, mechanics and others collect residual tissue samples, such as blood and flesh, from the sites of the bird strikes using cotton swabs, and send them to a private DNA testing agency.

By determining the species responsible for the bird strikes, airports hope to implement countermeasures that take into account the behavioural characteristics of those that are most problematic.

For example, if ducks are causing a series of collisions, removing clover, which is a food source for ducks, from the premises of the airport may be effective. If herons are the issue, getting rid of the insects they consume could help reduce incidents.

An official at Haneda Airport, one of the earlier airports to begin to implement measures against bird strikes, is optimistic about the plan. "We have made efforts to cope flexibly using measures for each species as a result of the DNA tests, such as selecting an appropriate time to eradicate weeds on the premises that are food for specified birds, and it seems to be having an effect."

Currently the programme only investigates cases in which there is damage to the fuselage, but the ministry is considering expanding the scope of the programme.

A ministry official said that they aim to "develop bird strike prevention measures tailored to the specific situation at each airport."

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