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William & Mary receives Grand Challenges Explorations grant

  • Sonic nets
    Sonic nets
    William & Mary scientists Mark Hinders (left) and John Swaddle are collaborating on a portable device designed to prevent birds from eating crops by temporarily disrupting their communication.
    Photo by Steve Salpukas

The College of William & Mary announced today that it is a Grand Challenges Explorations winner, an initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. John Swaddle, professor of biology, and Mark Hinders, professor of applied science, will pursue an innovative global health and development research project, titled “Employing sonic nets to exclude pest bird species from crops.”

“We’re very happy to be named a Grand Challenges Explorations winner,” stated Swaddle and Hinders. “Thanks to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we can continue work to address the age-old problem of crop loss to birds.”

Grand Challenges Explorations (GCE) funds individuals worldwide who are taking innovative approaches to some of the world’s toughest and persistent global health and development challenges. GCE invests in the early stages of bold ideas that have real potential to solve the problems people in the developing world face every day. Swaddle and Hinders’ project is one of over 80 Grand Challenges Explorations Round 9 grants announced today by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

“Investments in innovative global health research are already paying off,” said Chris Wilson, director of Global Health Discovery and Translational Sciences at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “We continue to be impressed by the novelty and innovative spirit of Grand Challenges Explorations projects and are enthusiastic about this exciting research. These investments hold real potential to yield new solutions to improve the health of millions of people in the developing world, and ensure that everyone has the chance to live a healthy productive life.”

To receive funding, the Swaddle-Hinders collaboration and other Grand Challenges Explorations Round 9 winners demonstrated in a two-page online application a creative idea in one of five critical global heath and development topic areas that included agriculture development, immunization and communications. Applications for the current open round, Grand Challenges Explorations Round 10, will be accepted through November 7, 2012. 

Millions of tons of food are lost each year to hungry birds. Swaddle and Hinders are perfecting “sonic net” devices to keep birds away from ripening crops. Swaddle explains that the devices emit sounds designed to disrupt avian communication.

“If the birds can’t hear each other, then they can’t share any information about where the food is or where predators are,” Swaddle said, adding that sonic nets will be especially effective against flocking birds. “If you’ve ever been next to a group of starlings or small parrots, they are constantly chattering to each to each other. So if you stop that, the birds will just move on to a place where they can talk to each other.”

Hinders explained that the sonic nets will be deployed through mobile transmitters.

“The key to this technology is to carefully control where the sound goes,” he explained. “Most speakers send sound every in direction, but we’re using a particular speaker that gives you a narrow beam of sound. So we can carefully control the direction of sound, how much the sound spreads and how much it dies out so that you have the sound just where you want it.”

Sonic nets won’t harm the birds, making for an extremely environmentally sound solution to a global agricultural problem, they say.

About Grand Challenges Explorations

Grand Challenges Explorations is a US$100 million initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Launched in 2008, over 700 people in 45 countries have received Grand Challenges Explorations grants. The grant program is open to anyone from any discipline and from any organization. The initiative uses an agile, accelerated grant-making process with short two-page online applications and no preliminary data required. Initial grants of US$100,000 are awarded two times a year. Successful projects have the opportunity to receive a follow-on grant of up to US$1 million.