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Alaska’s new robotic dog will be used to haze wildlife at the Fairbanks airport

Alaska Department of Transportation’s robotic dog walks through snow in Anchorafge on March 26, 2024, in Anchorage. DOT is testing the robot for future use in wildlife mitigation at Fairbanks International Airport. (Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News/TNS)

A doglike robot that recently drew notice in the state Capitol and on social media is being tested to spook wildlife at Fairbanks International Airport while disguised as a coyote or fox, a state agency said.

The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities on Friday posted a short video on Instagram of the robo-dog. The agency named it Aurora, calling it the department’s “new hire.” The department explained in a caption that the robot would be based out of the Fairbanks airport where it would “enhance & augment airport safety and operations.”

In the video, a headless, insect-like robot roughly the size of a large dog with a colorful exterior scrambles over rocks, climbs stairs and appears to dance, flashing green lights.

Alaska Department of Transportation program manager Ryan Marlow demonstrates a Boston Dynamics robotic dog on March 26, 2024, in Anchorage. DOT is testing the robot for future use in wildlife mitigation at Fairbanks International Airport. (Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News/TNS)

Not everyone who saw the post was a fan.

“We DO NOT want to see surveillance robot dogs here, even if they are chrome colored,” one user commented.

“I’ve seen this episode of Black Mirror,” another wrote, referencing a dystopian science fiction show that explores humanity’s relationship with technology. “It doesn’t end well.”

The use of robots by government agencies has become more common but also has led to some skepticism and controversy. New York City’s police department recently retired a 400-pound robot the agency had planned to use as a roving surveillance camera in the Times Square subway station, sparking many questions from privacy rights advocates. Portland Police last year rolled out an autonomous security robot for street surveillance. And the Anchorage Police Department has a robot it uses as part of its bomb squad.

In Alaska, remote technology is being used more broadly by state agencies to monitor earthquake and avalanche damage and road conditions; to respond more quickly to natural disasters; and to aid in search and rescue efforts, according to Ryan Marlow, a program manager with the Alaska Department of Transportation.

The Alaska Department of Public Safety has no plans to use robots as a surveillance or more general public safety tool in Alaska, agency spokesperson Austin McDaniel said.

Law enforcement agencies in the state currently use small drones or robots to help disable bombs and assist with search and rescue missions, but DPS has no plans to implement autonomous robots for other uses, McDaniel said.

The Alaska transportation department’s robotic dog has a different purpose: Aurora’s main job at the airport will be to discourage birds and other wildlife from settling near plane infields by imitating predator-like movements, according to Marlow, who said the robot is currently being tested for that use.

The robot, which is a product of Lower 48 company Boston Dynamics, cost about $70,000 and was funded by a $2 million federal grant, received by the state transportation department and wildlife biologists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Beginning this fall — at the start of migratory bird season — the plan is for the robot dog to patrol an outdoor area near the runway every hour to try to help prevent harmful encounters between planes and wildlife, particularly waterfowl, according to Marlow.

The robot had replaceable panels that would allow Aurora to eventually be disguised as a coyote or fox, he said.

“The sole purpose of this is to act as a predator, and allow for us to invoke that response in wildlife without having to use other means,” Marlow said during a joint session of the Alaska House and Senate transportation committees last week.

Marlow said in an interview that the agency is treating Aurora’s time in Fairbanks as a trial to see how effective the robot is as a nonlethal wildlife mitigation tool, particularly for migratory birds. They also want to test to see how larger animals like moose and bears respond to the robot, he said.

Current wildlife mitigation efforts at airports around the state involve wildlife service teams who startle away birds and other wildlife using loud sounds from poppers and paintball guns. They also keep grass short or dry out ponds to make areas unappealing to animals.

The teams are part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service, which partner with airports to provide the critical service of preventing plane-wildlife encounters.

Past efforts have been more outlandish: In the 1990s, airport officials released pigs near Anchorage’s Lake Hood, which they hoped would gobble up waterfowl eggs near plane landing areas.

Wildlife poses a significant threat to aviation safety, Marlow said.

There were 92 animal strikes near airports in Alaska last year, including 10 at Fairbanks airport, according to a database managed by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Most of those strikes resulted in no damage to the aircraft. But Marlow said that bird-plane encounters can be expensive and dangerous in rare cases where a bird gets sucked up into an engine, potentially causing a crash.

In 1995, an AWACS jet on Elmendorf Air Force Base hit a flock of geese and crashed, killing 24 people. Now, wildlife mitigation teams haze thousands of birds each year as a way to prevent catastrophes.

If Aurora is successful at deterring birds and other wildlife in Fairbanks, Marlow said the agency would price sending similar robots to more rural airports, which he said could be more cost-effective than hiring wildlife biologists.

“We’re definitely limited on funding, and there has to be an absolute need of wildlife mitigation at the airport before we’ll bring in a USDA employee,” he said.

The coyote or fox panels they planned to install would not be hyper-realistic, Marlow said. The agency decided against using animal fur because “we wanted to make sure that it remained completely weatherproof,” he said.

He said during the legislative hearing that the idea to use a robot dog came after the agency decided against another plan using flying drones to spray a repellent including grape juice as a deterrent.

“We decided it probably wasn’t a good idea to spray in these areas because we didn’t know what animals are attracted to grape juice … and how safe is it having these massive drones at an airport,” so they pivoted to a device that doesn’t fly, he said.

Boston Dynamics’ entry-level dog-bots are used in factories, research laboratories and construction sites to monitor routine operations, scan for potential hazards and conduct safety inspections, according to the company’s website.

Aurora is the first of its kind to be involved in wildlife mitigation, Marlow said.

The robot, which can be controlled from a tablet or computer or by “scheduled automation,” is waterproof but not bulletproof, Marlow said. It can move left, right, forward and backward, “and can even go for a jog as well,” he said.

It can navigate through water and snow; can sense objects in its path to avoid collisions; and can communicate remotely with aircraft pilots, he said.

Marlow said he’s been asked why the agency doesn’t use actual dogs for wildlife mitigation. He said the benefit of a robot is that it can work 24 hours a day without rest or food — and that it can gather usable data of every wildlife encounter with its built-in camera.

“We’re really trying to create the airports of the future,” he said.

Marlow emphasized that Aurora will always have a human operator.

“We don’t plan to let this thing operate autonomously until we have those security parameters in place,” Marlow said.

“I think of it as like a Roomba vacuum,” he added. “It’s not sentient.”


(c) 2024 the Alaska Dispatch News

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