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Feature - Keeping an eye on the sky with LifeWatch

Feature - Keeping an eye on the skies with LifeWatch, poster winner of EGEE 09

Bird encounters jets. According to the photographer, "This was not done in Photoshop. The bird was certainly a lot closer than the planes, but the depth of field was deep enough to capture everything in focus." Image courtesy Flickr/Kent Smith

Reports of 'bird strikes' in recent years are on the rise. According to Scientific American, in 1990 there were only 1,750 incidents in which birds struck a plane, whereas the number for 2008 was close to 8,000. While these encounters never work out well for the bird, normally the plane and passengers escape unharmed - although sometimes a lot of luck is involved. A small percentage of the time, the plane becomes seriously damaged and its engines fail, forcing an emergency landing (as happened last January with US Airways Flight 1549).

Several factors are contributing to the rise in bird strikes. For one thing, migratory bird populations are recovering, in response to pesticide bans and better environmental laws. (For example, the Canada goose population in the United States has increased from one million in 1990 to 3.9 million in 2008, say wildlife biologists.) Meanwhile, air traffic has increased since 1990, and airports themselves have expanded in size. The skies have become crowded.

To address this, the University of Amsterdam has been developing an application called "FlySafe," which will predict where and when birds are flying in order to help pilots avoid them. It will create statistical models and computer simulations woven from real-time data of bird migration from military and meteorological radars and GPS tracking of individual tagged birds, which can be tied in with maps. (See 9 September, 2009 issue of iSGTW.)

A small portion of the winning poster. Click on image above to see larger, 1.98 MB version.) Image courtesy LifeWatch

An eye on the skies and the Earth

The developers of FlySafe are partners in the LifeWatch project - currently in its prepatory phase. FlySafe is an example of what LifeWatch seeks to achieve: bringing together data from many sources, and making it compatible so it can be used in sophisticated calculations and models. The sights of LifeWatch extend beyond the skies however, to include the whole planet. If it can create a seamless, global network of biodiversity data - a goal well suited to grid technology - it hopes it will create a new way of understanding biodiversity.

"The problem with biodiversity data is that it is spotty," says Axel Poigné, who presented and was awarded "Best Poster" for The LifeWatch ICT Reference Model at the recent Enabling Grids for E-sciencE conference in Barcelona. "If we can integrate all available data and analytical tools then we will give scientists, policy makers and the public at large a powerful way of making new discoveries about our planet and deciding how best to protect it."

This reference model is crucial for the LifeWatch community. It will be the common basis through which independently working teams will make their results interoperable.

"Just imagine that one team is to develop analysis tools as done in FlySafe using all kinds of data from very different sources and another team develops the data capturing mechanisms for these data (sensors, radar, etcetera) while a third team develops tools to visualize the results of the analysis as a map on which you can see where and when the birds fly," says Poigné. "If you want to use all the tools and software together you needs standards and common kind of procedures so that everything can cooperate smoothly. The idea of the Reference Model is to provide a backbone for this kind of interoperability."

LifeWatch began its preparatory phase on 1 February 2008. In the spring of 2011, this consortium of 18 interested partner countries and eight scientific networks, will move in to production.

-Danielle Venton, EGEE

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