Aerial drones could eventually help Washington growers recoup some of the $80 million a year in crop damages caused by birds.

That’s according to a study by Washington State University scientists published earlier this year in the journal of the American Society of Agriculture and Biological Engineers.

Manoj Karkee, an associate professor at WSU’s Agricultural Automation and Robotics Lab, and colleagues found an aerial drone significantly reduced bird activity in a vineyard outside of Prosser, Washington.

While the research is still in an early stage of development, the scientists’ eventual goal is to replace traditionally costly and ineffective bird deterrence methods such as netting or visual methods like scarecrows with their flying robots.

“Bird damage to crops has always been a problem,” Karkee said. “Drones are becoming more practical as the technology for them develops.”

The team conducted a field experiment in a vineyard at the Olsen Bros Ranches Inc. in Prosser. A Phantom 3 drone was used to monitor the vineyard and deter incoming birds. The drone used multiple deterrence methods such as playing bird distress calls and reflecting light into the eyes of its winged opponents via reflective propellers.

Over the course of three days, the researchers found birds flew into the vineyard more when the drone wasn’t in use. The drone’s most effective deterrence method turned out to be using distress calls in its flight path.

Karkee said there’s still more work to do. The limited battery power of the drone only allows it to fly two hours a day in 15-minute intervals.

“That’s not enough to guard vineyards,” he said.

The researchers are also still implementing flight routes for the drone to fly by itself. In the experiment, an observer was needed with a direct line of sight to control the drone.

“We have a sufficient amount of data to show the effectiveness of the drone,” Karkee said. “Our next step is to have a sensing system to detect where birds are and put that data into flight patterns for drones to automatically intercept.”

Another consideration for the researchers is the adaptability of birds. Birds are clever and tend to figure out traditional deterrence methods over time. To counter this, the researchers are observing how birds react to the drone so that they can ensure their robotic deterrence method is as random and unpredictable as possible.