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Midvale Journal

Local youth transform the world

Oct 03, 2017 02:14PM ● By Julie Slama

The team demonstrated the Bionic Scarecrow before the Utah State Board of Education in September. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

About one year ago, a team of then sixth-graders met with a wildlife biologist at Salt Lake City International Airport wanting to see how they could help.

“I wasn’t sure what they were wanting to look at, but they were interested in seeing what we do,” said USDA Wildlife Biologist Bobby Boswell. “I showed them around, told them about our problems and issues at the airport concerning birds. A bit later, they came out with a prototype of a bird scare device. It was simple — a fan screwed to wood powered by a motor.”

Since last fall, the team, nicknamed Bionic Porcupines 2.0, spent several months updating and altering the bird scare device now known across the country as the Bionic Scarecrow. It’s now housed in a tool box that uses a car battery and marine fan to power a wind sock sewn of rip-stop nylon as a small, portable, environmentally friendly and effective way to scare away birds nesting around airports.

While working with Boswell, the team learned more about bird strikes, popularized through the “Miracle on the Hudson” when a pilot safely landed a plane on the Hudson River in 2009 after a bird strike took out the plane’s engines. The issue came to the forefront again this year with the movie, “Sully,” based on that bird strike.

“We discovered that the problem was larger than we realized at first because many airports are located on the birds’ migratory routes and habitats,” Abigail Slama-Catron said, who is a seventh-grader at Midvale Middle School with teammate Eric Snaufer. “We’re wanting to share our Bionic Scarecrows because they save lives — both the people’s and the birds.”

Salt Lake City International Airport

At Salt Lake International, that means swallows nesting in culverts and geese and ducks landing on the nearby abandoned golf course and munching on grasshoppers in the fields, Boswell said.

“I didn’t know if a small version would work to keep away the birds, but we tested the Scarecrow in January. We had dispersed geese (by other methods) for 21 days prior, but for seven days when we tested it, the Scarecrow kept birds away without us having to do any other method,” he said.

Since then, the airport staff has been using three Scarecrows the team has provided to effectively and efficiently scare birds from nesting or landing near the airport, ultimately reducing the number of possible bird strikes which could endanger birds and humans, Boswell said.

“It has saved us up to 30 minutes nine times every day to leave the airfield and drive to the golf course to use pyrotechnics to scare away birds. We’re able to constantly scare the birds away during the day with the Scarecrow and we’re able to do our work elsewhere,” he said. “I’ve learned to never underestimate anybody of any age. When they came, I didn’t know I’d be spending the last 11 months with them, but I’ve embraced every minute of it.”

Seventh-grader Allison Drennan, who attends Beehive Science and Technology Academy with teammate Timothy Holt, said the team has built several Scarecrows and want to share them with more airports.

“We not only identified a need, but we created an answer — and it works,” she said.

North America Bird Strike Committee Conference, Dallas

With an invitation to speak and demonstrate the Scarecrow, the team has been able to share the project with other airport officials. On Aug. 24, they spoke at the North America Bird Strike Committee Conference in Dallas and shared their device to about 300 wildlife and aviation specialists.

“It was a very cool thing to do and we were able to expand our knowledge and connections,” Eric said.

After presenting their device and explaining how it had been tested for eight months, they demonstrated it at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport.

Dallas Fort-Worth International Airport Wildlife Administrator Cathy Boyles said that the conference rotates through different airports so wildlife staffs can get hands-on learning and see the best practices demonstrated.

At Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, progress has been made in reducing strikes of pigeons, the No. 1 bird that causes damage to airplanes in the area after eliminating certain vegetation when a botanist discovered that a certain kind of seed was attracting both pigeons and mourning doves. 

While pyrotechnics, changing vegetation and even introducing a programmed robotic bird are methods wildlife staff use or explore, Boyles said she supports all ideas brought to wildlife staffs in an effort to reduce bird strikes.

“It’s the first time we’ve had kids take notice and want to help find an answer,” she said. “It’s very cool.”

USDA Science Adviser Richard Dolbeer said that through various methods, bird strikes have been reduced.

“The number of bird strikes causing damage has gone down from about 500 nationwide in 2000 to 350 in 2015,” he said, adding that it’s typically larger birds that cause the most damage.

What the Bionic Porcupines discovered, through a recent Cornell University study, Eric said, was that random motion scares away birds. Dolbeer said that the team of 12-year-olds used that knowledge along with answering the needs of their airport staff to introduce a method to effectively offer another solution.

“What this group of young people did is really a neat thing. They’ve introduced a practical method and learned the science behind it. It shows their commitment and their practical application is excellent,” he said.

The Bionic Scarecrow will save airport officials money on current more expensive methods of scaring the birds as well as save airlines about $900 million per year in damaged planes, Timothy said.

“We have a provisional patent so we’re able to produce more Bionic Scarecrows to help stop bird strikes at other airports and places around the world,” Timothy said, adding that the team can continue to make improvements and adjustments such as adding solar chargers, motion sensors and remotes to work the device.

Abigail said the experience was beneficial.

“It was eye-opening to hear how others were trying to scare away birds and see their inventions. We explained our Bionic Scarecrow to all these leading officials and wildlife staff from North America, who genuinely were interested in our innovative method. Now, many of them want to try it out at their airports,” Abigail said.

Presidential Environmental Education Award, Washington, D.C.

A few days later, on Aug. 28, the Bionic Porcupines 2.0 were awarded the President’s Environmental Youth Award by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

EPA Office of Public Engagement and Environmental Education Chief of Staff Tom Brennan said he has not been aware of a project similar to this in the past 20 years.

“My first impression is that these students problem-solved to find a device that could use effective engineering and put it into practical use that could dramatically reduce bird strikes,” Brennan said. “This could really save lives. When we look at students’ projects, we look for creativity and problem-solving and this fits both.”

EPA Acting Deputy Administrator Mike Flynn said that the students really struck a chord in the depth of their project and the way they were not only creative, but also communicated and created the partnership.

“The students were thinking outside the box and found new and different ways to approach environmental problems,” he said.

Eric said that the honor is significant.

“It’s a really big honor and our team has worked hard,” he said. “But it will really pay off when the Scarecrows are out in the airport helping people.”


The Bionic Porcupines 2.0 returned to school in Utah and are continuing to spread the word about their device. On Sept. 5, they shared their project with Midvale Mayor JoAnn Seghini and the city council.

“This is absolutely amazing,” she said at the council meeting. “These kids have the get up and go. They were going to do it — and they did it.”

Then she told the team, “I’m so proud of you innovative scientists.” 

Days later, on Sept. 8, they took the project to the State Board of Education where they received a standing ovation. They also have been recognized at Beehive Academy of Science and Technology, Midvale Middle School, Sandy City Council and were slated to appear at Canyons Board of Education on Sept. 19. 

In February, the team took the prototype to the First Lego League state championships and won the most innovative project. The Bionic Scarecrow was named one of the top 60 most innovative First Lego League projects in the world.

In March, Abigail and Eric represented the team at the Salt Lake Valley Science and Engineering Fair where they won the elementary division mechanical engineering category as well as special awards from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Utah Department of Transportation. 

In April, Abigail’s film on the project won the best middle school documentary at the 8th Canyons Film Festival and she was invited to submit it for the Colorado Environmental Film Festival. On April 15, they were joined by Allison’s older sister, Katie, and were awarded the best prototype at the Utah High School Entrepreneur Challenge. 

In July, they presented the Bionic Scarecrow to about 400 EPA scientists and officials at the regional headquarters, receiving a standing ovation and positive feedback.

This fall, the project also was among the top 300 science fair projects in the nation in the seventh annual Broadcom MASTERS, the nation’s most prestigious science, technology, engineering and math competition for middle school students.

“It’s great to be recognized for our hard work, but what meant the most was when we went to the airport to see our project actually work,” Abigail said. “We are making a difference in the world.”

The team’s accomplishments took their coaches Mark Snaufer and Ben Holt by surprise.

“The team of 12-year-olds continuously surprised me when they’ve been given the chance to show the depth of expertise and knowledge they have,” Holt said.