Bird Migration Research in SBE Soars to New Heights

RC Planes 2Researchers in SBE as well as the Engineering Department are taking advantage of radio-controlled planes to solve the mysteries of bird migration. Brian Barainca, a mechanical engineering student, has been building radio-controlled (RC) planes ever since he was in high school. When SBE Professor Rebecca Holberton saw him flying his RC planes on campus, she called upon him to help with bird migration research, and it has been an adventure ever since.

Ani Varjabedian, a student in SBE’s Zoology program, was working in Professor Holberton’s acoustics lab and started working on the RC plane project in order to bring a biological perspective to it. “I’m interested in using the plane to test different altitudes of bird flight and where we can see the most birds,” explained Varjabedian. The goal of using a plane to observe bird migration is to view birds without disturbance and at a closer proximity. “You have to get pretty close to birds when you view them on the ground, which could disturb them,” explained Barainca, “but with the plane you can step back and get to where you need to go.” In this way, the plane reduces error by eliminating human presence from observation.

The plane works via a remote control by someone on the ground. A camera on the front of the plane sends live video footage to the controller in order for the controller to see exactly where the plane is going. Although the current camera on the plane is great for live viewing, Barainca hopes to get a new camera that is higher quality for recording. Also, the camera is not equipped to see if there are birds right below the plane, which Barainca hopes to also improve.

The researchers ideally want to survey shorebird populations and find migration patterns. The plane will hopefully be able to track birds with radio frequency signals. Tagging birds with radio tags has not been successful in the past because researchers don’t necessarily know where the birds go. If the plane can detect tagged birds it will be monumental for migration research.

Barainca is obsessed with aircraft. Although he already knew how to build planes, his engineering education has helped him apply what he has learned to biology. “Airplanes brought me to mechanical engineering, and my major has helped me analyze stress on the plane,” he said. Best of luck to Professor Holberton, Ani Varjabedian and Brian Barainca as they soar to a new level of bird research.