On Monday afternoon, a captive audience watched a 14-year-old golden eagle named Walter fly from branch to branch outside the High Desert Museum, gobbling up bits of dead quail as he went.
However, the demonstration was not part of the museum’s well-known Raptors of the Desert Sky show. Instead, it was a piece of an ongoing Oregon State University project using the museum’s collection of eagles to help model behavior and flight patterns to develop technology that ultimately reduces the number of golden eagles killed by wind turbines.
“It is critical to help the species survive,” said Roberto Albertani, associate professor of mechanical engineering at OSU’s Corvallis campus.
In May 2017, Albertani and the team at OSU received a 27-month, $625,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy Wind Technology Office, aimed at developing a technology for detecting and deterring golden eagles that fly too close to the blades of wind turbines.
Albertani said the project will have three components, which can be used independently and can be added to existing wind turbines.
A sensor that can be mounted on the tower of the turbine can detect a nearby bird and determine if it is an eagle in danger of hitting a blade. If it is, the sensor triggers another component of the project: a deterrence system on the ground, designed to scare the birds away from the turbine. The final portion of the project is a series of blade-mounted sensors designed to confirm that a bird did not collide with them.
To develop the detection portion of the system, Albertani and his team, which includes two other OSU professors and several graduate students, needed data on how golden eagles look, fly and generally behave.
Albertani reached out to the High Desert Museum last year about using its eagles, including Walter, to model behavior. The team set up a 360-degree camera that can track an eagle as it flies, transmitting data to a computer in real time. While the sensor is only capable of detecting eagles, Albertani said, the software can be adjusted to respond to any species of bird.
“The key point is to train the algorithm to automatically detect a certain species,” Albertani said.
If it’s successful, the project will help solve one of wind energy’s ongoing challenges: bird fatalities caused by turbines. A 2013 study notes that at least 140,000 birds are killed by wind turbines every year. While energy-industry groups dispute that total, Albertani noted that the true total has likely increased in the past five years, as the industry has grown.
Jon Nelson, curator of wildlife for the High Desert Museum, said wind turbines are relatively low on the list of human-caused dangers to golden eagles, behind uncovered windows and power lines. But he said the eagles, which tend to prefer open areas like the sagebrush fields east of Bend, often fly near ridges and other areas that receive a lot of wind.
“And those are the exact types of places we like to build wind farms,” Nelson said.
While Albertani has worked with other eagles in other locations, he said working with the High Desert Museum has been a good fit, given the museum’s collection of trained birds of prey and proximity to Corvallis.
“The museum has been absolutely wonderful to support our work,” He said.
Dana Whitelaw, executive director of the museum, said the museum supports a mix of research in Central Oregon, including a carnivore-monitoring project in the Deschutes National Forest, which tracks a variety of mammals, including the rare Sierra Nevada red fox.
Whitelaw said the partnership with Albertani and his team dovetailed perfectly with the museum’s goal to be a place for exploring areas of conflict within Oregon’s High Desert.
“It’s hard to find another example of a project that so closely knits our mission to an area of research,” Whitelaw said.
Albertani said he plans to have a proof of concept for the entire system by next year, which can then be adapted for the commercial market.
“Hopefully there are companies interested in picking up the system,” he said.
As for Walter, who came to the museum about 2½ years ago after being struck by a car and spending time in a Washington animal shelter, Nelson said the flight Monday acted as a test run of sorts.
If all goes well, Nelson said he’d be able to perform in Raptors of the Desert Sky before long.
“Hopefully he’ll be flying for the public next week,” Nelson said.
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