Birds such as robins and starlings enjoy grapes as much as humans do, which tends to cause endless headaches for Willamette Valley growers. Winemakers Dick and Gretchen Evans sponsored mechanical engineering majors Robert Elgin, Peter Cathcart, and Greg Meshnik to develop a solution that would mitigate crop damage by birds before and during the grape harvest season.
The team focused on identifying effective, practical, affordable bird control techniques best suited for implementation at a Willamette Valley vineyard. “One of the things we learned from our research,” said Elgin, “was that a lot of bird control techniques are stationary and only work for a short period of time before the targeted bird species are acclimated and therefore no longer deterred. Think scarecrow.”
After researching the issue, the team invented an unmanned aerial vehicle disguised as a Cooper’s hawk, which is a native raptor and natural predator of several “pest” bird species. They consulted a biologist at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife about the Cooper’s hawk’s flight patterns and typical behaviors associated with hunting, such as perching, circling, and swooping.
Cooper’s hawks tend to perch above the ground and eventually swoop to kill, so the team attempted to mimic that behavior. “What we tried to do is use a combination of aerial maneuvers that go from a high elevation to swooping down to lower elevations across the vineyard to try to spook those birds and scare them away,” said Elgin.
The team programmed an autopilot sequence mapped to the unique topography of the Evans’ vineyard. Once the vehicle lands, the operator can turn off the autopilot switch, pick up the plane, and fly it again or store it for another day.
“In theory, it will work,” said Elgin, “but there are no grapes on the vine right now and so this coming summer and fall when they get ready for harvest, there will be proof of concept testing to see if it actually makes a difference.”