Wildlife Labor: Using Eagles to Combat Drones

Candice Gaukel Andrews January 10, 2017 9
In an innovative program, Dutch police are using eagles to disable dangerous and illegal drones. ©Peter Pearsall/USFWS

In an innovative program, Dutch police are using eagles to disable dangerous and illegal drones. That may be beneficial for humans, but is it good for the birds? ©Peter Pearsall/USFWS

From employing dogs to protect our airports and track endangered species to using ravens to replant the forests we destroy, using animals to do our work isn’t a new idea.

But now, for the first time, the Dutch National Police are training eagles to be an avian air force that will protect people from illegal flying drones.

Initial results show that “hiring” eagles to rid the skies of problem drones may be the most effective—and cost-saving—way to dismantle the aerial robots.

But is it good for the eagles?

Dangerous and damaging drones

A tourist crashed a drone into Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park in 2014. ©Clément Bardot

A tourist crashed a drone into Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park in 2014. ©Clément Bardot

For about a decade now, private drones, mostly used as toys, have been popular. In that time, they have also created problems for the environment, for security police and for people like you and me. In August 2014, for example, a tourist from The Netherlands crashed his drone into Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park, causing still unknown damage to the ecosystem.

Later that year, in October 2014, a soccer match held in Belgrade between the national teams of Serbia and Albania had to be abandoned when a small drone, flying low over the stadium and trailing an Albanian nationalist banner, made a sudden appearance. The event provoked a riot.

Twelve months later, in September 2015, a student flew a drone over the University of Kentucky’s football stadium, which was packed with 63,000 fans, and crashed it into the stands. That same month, a New York City teacher was arrested after flying a drone over the court during a tennis match at the U.S. Open.

Criminals are increasingly using drones to smuggle drugs and cell phones into prisons. Others are flying them in restricted airspace, much too close to airports, or are piloting them uncomfortably close to domestic and foreign dignitaries during official visits. Security personnel are concerned drones could be used by terrorists to deliver weapons.

Personal drones have been used to smuggle contraband into prisons and disrupt commercial airports. ©Andrew Turner, flickr

Personal drones have been used to smuggle contraband into prisons and disrupt commercial airports. ©Andrew Turner, flickr

Effective eagles

Many methods have been tried to combat such drones, but most of them have been expensive and unpractical, such the DroneDefender, a “directed-energy unmanned aircraft system countermeasure”; bigger drones that shoot nets at rogue drones; or “death rays” that can disable drones in flight.

That’s why the Dutch police are experimenting with using birds of prey to hunt and catch drones that are being flown illegally. After working with an organization called Guard from Above, which describes itself as “the world’s first company specialized in training birds of prey to intercept hostile drones,” the police believe that regularly employing raptors to disable illegally operating drones is now a very real possibility.

Guard from Above says its eagles see the errant drones as prey. Instinctively, the birds intercept the devices midair and then carry them to a landing place that’s located safely away from other predators. To distract the eagles from further investigations of the drones once they’ve landed with them, handlers offer the birds pieces of meat as a reward, wooing them away from the small planes. So far, the eagles have been successful at bringing down the drones 80 percent of the time.

Talons are designed to carry things. For an eagle, that means the soft flesh of prey. ©Justin Connaher

Talons are designed to carry things. For an eagle, that means the soft flesh of prey. ©Justin Connaher

The Dutch police claim that no birds have been harmed during testing, but they are continuing to monitor the eagles’ talons for impact injuries. They are even commissioning special claw protectors to cover talons and guard against wounds that could result from intercepting very large drones. Eventually, about 100 Dutch officers across The Netherlands will be trained to use the birds, and they have even begun to raise their own eagle chicks.

In fact, London’s New Scotland Yard is so impressed with the birds’ results that it’s looking into this “innovative use of nature.”

At-risk raptors

While Guard from Above claims that it is relying on the birds’ natural hunting instincts to take out drones while they’re in flight, some point out that bald eagles in the wild do not normally grab prey out of the air. Quoted in a National Geographic article written by Nicholas Lund, the president of the Raptor Conservancy of Virginia, Kent Knowles, says, “Bald eagles are not bird predators. They eat fish and carrion. Bald eagles are not falconry birds. [This type of hunting is] dangerous because drones are not like anything bald eagles or other birds of prey find in nature.”

In the wild, eagles eat fish and carrion. ©Rollin Bannow/USFS

In the wild, eagles eat fish and carrion. ©Rollin Bannow/USFS

The fear is that drone rotor blades could seriously injure the birds. While the raptors have incredible visual acuity and so far seem to be grabbing the drones in the center so that they avoid being hit, drone blades—especially carbon fiber ones—can cause serious damage to an animal. If an eagle were to midjudge its attack or if the drone operator were to initiate evasive or defensive maneuvers, the bird could be struck by the blades and killed.

Do you think that pressing eagles into our service as drone fighters is an ethical, low-tech and cost-saving way to battle the sometimes-dangerous machines and their pilots?

In a time when federal and state agencies are rushing to wipe away wildlife protections, perhaps it would be best to remember all of the services and benefits that animals—domestic and wild—provide.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy

9 Comments »

  1. Carolyn E. Balls March 2, 2017 at 9:21 am - Reply

    It cannot be ethical to use a wild creature this way.

  2. Amaranta Baujot M. March 2, 2017 at 9:17 am - Reply

    Excellent article and question! Isn’t it crazy to see that we need innocent bird’s help to protect ourselves from the stupidity and dangerousity of other humans?If experiments and trainings show that eagles are able to attack the drones without hurting themselves my only objection is a big SIGH…

  3. Lee Hopper March 2, 2017 at 9:09 am - Reply

    Me, either.

  4. Jack Daugherty March 2, 2017 at 9:08 am - Reply

    I don’t think this is a good idea.

  5. Steve Christensen February 14, 2017 at 9:23 am - Reply

    Definitely an unfortunate use of wildlife.

  6. Judy Sylvester January 15, 2017 at 7:23 am - Reply

    I am against using eagles to use their talons to attack hard metallic objects. There is too much of a chance for the eagle to be injured.

  7. Joan January 11, 2017 at 11:28 am - Reply

    Gee – it’s a slippery slope once you start using wild (rather than domesticated) animals to do your bidding. Wasn’t there a navy program to use seals or sea lions to find underwater mines that provoked the same concerns and criticism?

    Your post mentions that some police are starting to raise their own eaglets. Where did the original adults come from that Guard from Above uses? Were they captured wild birds or hatched in captivity?

    As much as we need to find a defense for drones, this can’t be the right way to do it, when serious injury to the birds would seem inevitable.

    I say this having thoroughly enjoyed the recent film, “The Eagle Huntress,” which definitely involves using wild birds for human purposes, but in that instance the use is not on an “industrial” scale, and birds are returned to the wild after 7 years. However, there’s still plenty of room for misgivings in that case, too, even making allowances for “cultural heritage.”

  8. Carolyn Knoll January 11, 2017 at 10:26 am - Reply

    Animals have done so much for us. My question is what have we done for them except drive many species to extinction. One example: The US Navy developed sonar by studying dolphins and now, by using sonar, are disrupting the communication patterns of dolphins and whales. Autopsies and research on why some dolphins and whales beach themselves and eventually die is due to sonar. So, going back to my initial question, can’t we human beings find ways to defend against drones that don’t further endanger animals? No matter the expense, we should protect animals, not use them to benefit everything human. Haven’t we done enough damage?

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