Renewable energy sources are surely cleaner than carbon-based or nuclear energy, but there are a few more or less inevitable drawbacks which make them unappealing for a lot of people: solar farms scorch birds in midair, meanwhile wind turbines confuse and often strike them to death. Addressing the second issue now researchers try to figure out how to minimize bird and wind turbine collisions with the help of the most affected: birds.

The following set of NREL photos show how two Auburn University eagles participate in a unique research at the National Wind Technology Center. The beautiful predators, and their trainers, and a veterinarian help the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory to develop a radar and visual systems that prevent bird death caused by turbine blades.

Spirit, a 20 year old Bald Eagle, and Nova (aka War Eagle 7), a Golden eagle at the same age, are trained raptors from the Southeastern Raptor Center, where their role is to promote wildlife conservation, education and rehabilitation. According to Auburn University this time they save their own pals:

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Bird collisions with wind turbine blades are uncommon, but since birds can fly at the height of the huge blades, anything that can be done to protect them is important. Golden eagles, protected under federal law, are among the large birds that could interact with wind turbines.

The ongoing research, which is a collaboration project with Laufer Wind, Renewable Energy Systems (RES), NREL and University of Auburn, collects data from the flight path of the two eagles, after they are released from lifts set up at different places among wind turbines. The birds are equipped with highly sensitive GPS tracking and logging devices, and researchers test two different systems in order to monitor their movements.

Laufer Wind’s Aircraft Detection System, a radar-based system designed to detect nearby airplanes, scans 360 degrees, but in this research program its task is harder than to find a needle in a haystack, as NREL researcher Jason Roadman explains:

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The radars process a gigabyte of data every minute; the trick is to discern the bytes of data that represent the bird. Learning the size, speed and flight characteristics of the eagle helps the radar determine what is and isn’t a bird.

The other system is RES’ visual eagle detection system called IdentiFlight, a system of cameras that can detect birds at up to 0.62 miles from a wind turbine. Either way the aim is to detect birds in time so an alert can be sent to the wind power plant operator to slow down or completely stop the blades.

Researchers, trainers and a veterinarian are waiting for the birds (Photo: Dennis Schroeder/National Renewable Energy Lab)
Nova, the Golden Eagle (Photo: Dennis Schroeder/National Renewable Energy Lab)
Spirit, the 20-year-old Bald eagle flies from a lift to his trainer (Photo: Dennis Schroeder/National Renewable Energy Lab)
Eagle equipped with a tracker (Photo: Dennis Schroeder/National Renewable Energy Lab)
NREL researcher Jason Roadman shows the tracking device (Photo: Dennis Schroeder/National Renewable Energy Lab)
NREL researcher Jason Roadman and veterinarian Seth Oster release Spirit from a lift during research (Photo: Dennis Schroeder/National Renewable Energy Lab)
Jason Roadman and veterinarian Seth Oster release Nova (Photo: Dennis Schroeder/National Renewable Energy Lab)
Fly Nova, fly! (Photo: Dennis Schroeder/National Renewable Energy Lab)
Eagle trainer, Marianne Hudson, spins a lure for Nova (Photo: Dennis Schroeder/National Renewable Energy Lab)
And Nova comes (Photo: Dennis Schroeder/National Renewable Energy Lab)
Gotcha! (Photo: Dennis Schroeder/National Renewable Energy Lab)
Spirit gets its tracker device (Photo: Dennis Schroeder/National Renewable Energy Lab)
John Knag, of Laufer Wind, plans a pre-flight strategy to collect data (Photo: Dennis Schroeder/National Renewable Energy Lab)
Spirit in flight (Photo: Dennis Schroeder/National Renewable Energy Lab)
Eric Laufer shares data from Spirit with eagle trainers, Marianne Hudson, and Andrew Hopkins (Photo: Dennis Schroeder/National Renewable Energy Lab)
Researchers from RES America log data using their IdentiFlight technology as the two eagles fly routes (Photo: Dennis Schroeder/National Renewable Energy Lab)
Collecting data (Photo: Dennis Schroeder/National Renewable Energy Lab)
Beautiful scientific raptor (Photo: Dennis Schroeder/National Renewable Energy Lab)