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Chehalis-Centralia Airport deploys drone to chase birds off the runway

Brandon Rakes, airport operations manager and president of the Experimental Aircraft Association, demonstrates the new drone at the Chehalis-Centralia Airport.
Brandon Rakes, airport operations manager and president of the Experimental Aircraft Association, demonstrates the new drone at the Chehalis-Centralia Airport. jwenzelburger@chronline.com

When rogue seagulls land at the Chehalis-Centralia Airport, it’s up to the airport’s staff to make sure the birds stay away from the runway.

“One thing that is very important is that aircraft don’t strike birds,” said airport operations coordinator Brandon Rakes. “If a jet were to inhale a seagull, it would be a bad day for everybody.”

Rakes referenced Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who crash-landed a commercial jet in the Hudson River in New York after striking a flock of geese in 2009.

“We don’t want nothing crash-landing in the Chehalis,” airport maintenance staffer Austin Barnes joked.

Currently, Barnes and his team use firearms to scare away the birds, shooting off explosive rounds that burst overhead with a loud bang. But soon, they'll be switching to a drone, flying the airport’s new DJI Mavic Pro quadcopter out to “haze” any animals that wander onto the runway.

“This gives us a cleaner, safer, more effective way to deal with those,” Rakes said.

Using a drone poses less danger than firing projectiles, and it’s also less likely to leave debris on the runway. It also makes less noise, making it a more “community-friendly” option in light of the many nearby businesses.

“That thing’s a lot quieter than a bird-banger gun,” Barnes said.

Barnes said scaring off birds can be time-consuming, especially in the winter when wet weather seems to bring them to the airport regularly.

Rakes first learned about the drone option at an industry conference last year. After spending some time doing research, he opted to purchase the drone two weeks ago. The $900 model has a range of four miles, though Rakes said he’s legally required to operate it within line of sight.

Rakes is the only airport staffer now licensed to operate the drone, though other airport employees will be completing the training soon. Though he has yet to send the drone after any birds, Rakes is excited to put his newest piece of equipment to work.

“This isn’t a toy,” he said. “This is an actual tool.”

The drone is equipped with a 4K resolution camera, GPS sensors to return it to its takeoff point if it loses reception, and obstacle avoidance technology. It also uses geo-fencing to keep it away from pre-mapped areas that might pose a danger to aircraft. Its battery allows it to fly for about 27 minutes.

Scaring seagulls may not be the only task Rakes finds for the drone. He said it could prove useful for hangar inspections, documenting repairs on airport projects, and providing imagery for airport property Chehalis is attempting to market.

“We’re still coming up with uses for it,” he said.

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