A keyhole wasp near the entrance of a 3D printed device, similar to those used to measure airspeed on airplanes
House et al. (2020) PLOS ONE
Keyhole wasps are notorious for building their nests in fabricated structures, and they have now been shown to do so in devices mounted on aircraft, which are critical to measuring airspeed in flight. Blockages in these pipes can cause pilots to misinterpret airspeed and have historically resulted in fatal crashes.
Alan House of consulting firm Eco Logical Australia and his colleagues spent three years studying the behavior of keyhole wasps (Pachodynerus nasidens) at Brisbane Airport. The team found that the wasps easily build nests in pitot probes, tubular instruments often mounted under the cockpit on the outside of an aircraft.
The investigation was sparked by several security incidents involving the Wasps, including one that saw an aircraft re-land shortly after departure because pilots discovered an airspeed mismatch, House says. “It’s not a mayday emergency, but it’s the next level and closes the runways,” says House. In this case, it was found that a blocked pitot probe was the culprit.
To find out what could be responsible for these blockages, the team re-printed 3D-printed pitot probes and set them up in four locations at Brisbane Airport for 39 months.
Three panels, each with up to six types of probes, were installed at each location, including those on the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 and A330. The researchers checked the probes 49 times between February 2016 and April 2019 and replaced them if they found a blockage.
They found that 93 probes were completely blocked during this time, all by keyhole wasp nests. The wasps preferred probes larger than 3 millimeters in diameter and built almost all of their nests between November and May.
In South and Central America, where the keyhole wasp is a native species, it is known to build its nest in cavities like keyholes and electrical outlets. “It’s pretty famous for the plasticity of its nesting behavior,” says House.
As a result of the research, risk reduction strategies have been put in place, such as covering pitot probes when planes arrive at Brisbane Airport.
“We’re trying to make it clear that flying is still safe in Brisbane,” said House. Given that the wasp arrived in Australia by crossing the Pacific Ocean, it is possible that it could spread to other parts of the country, he says.
Journal reference: PLoS ONE, DOI: 10.1371 / journal.pone.0242063
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