Birds trained to take down drones

By Luke Andrews

Drones have become a common sight. With few regulations the industry has exploded. The result: increasing risk to aircraft, alongside a novel way to carry cameras, parcels or even drugs and bombs. Now the Dutch police have come up with an innovative solution to tackle the problem.

The Hague-based company Guards From Above has begun to train birds to pull drones from the sky. Their training focuses on birds of prey, so you won’t see your local pigeon dive-bombing unsightly aircraft anytime soon.

The bird of choice has been the bald eagle. They are well known for attacking others fliers mid-air when they come too close to their young or stray into their territory. And they are well-equipped to damage the perceived aggressor: talons appear to be just as effective on machines as they are on stray birds.

A recently posted YouTube video shows one of these avian policemen in action:

“It’s a low-tech solution for a high-tech problem”, commented Sjoerd Hoogendoorn, Guards from Above manager. The birds will likely be deployed where the risk from drones is highest: around airports.

Drones’ unrestricted flight paths mean they pose a real threat to aircraft during landing and takeoff. Last June a Lufthansa plane landing at Warsaw airport had to dodge a rogue drone, missing it by 330 feet. It was not the first case. Seven near misses were reported between May and March last year.

The Civil Aviation Authority has conceded that it is only a matter of time before a drone hits a plane in flight. Aircraft have no defence against this. Their engines are tested for ‘bird strikes’, when a bird and aircraft impact, by having avian corpses fired at running engines. When corpse meets jet engine, the body disintegrates and the propellers within the engine can bend slightly, preventing the plane from flying properly.

There are around 1,500 bird-plane collisions annually, occurring during takeoff and landing. Smashing through a flock of geese in 2006, the US Airlines plane leaving LaGuardia airport in New York had to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River. If the pilot had accidentally brought the plane down over New York City the incident would have been a lot worse. And a collision between a plane and a 5 kg machine could well be a different story.

It is perhaps ironic, as birds also interfere with commercial aviation, that with the training provided by Guards from Above, the Dutch police could soon start using them to take out drones. Is it sensible to deploy animals in a dangerous area like this? National Geographic writer Nicholas Lard doesn’t think so: “Bald eagles deserve better than being conscripted into an endless war against evil flying robots.”

The alternative, of course, is using another drone. Drone-catching drones from the Parisian firm Malou Tech snatch the disorderly machines mid-air with a dangling net. In parallel, British scientists have developed a drone “death ray”. This fires an electromagnetic beam at the drone, disrupting its communication with the command centre, causing an engine failure and crash. It is an attractive option as it does not pose any risk to life, but the crash is completely uncontrolled so may not be effective in alleviating risk to aircraft.

We have a history of enlisting animals to sort out our problems: dolphins were trained to detect mines and pigeons to carry messages during both world wars, putting their lives at risk without thought. Training eagles to do the same thing is a real issue, but it is perhaps the best option of a bad bunch. They are fast, agile and well-equipped for the job.

In a world where drones are already being used to carry out terrorist acts, the Dutch police and Guards from Above may have hit on an excellent idea. But regulation of this technique is a likely sticking point—perhaps we’ll have to wait until a drone does bring down a plane before we see it in action.

Photograph: Justin Connaher via Wikimedia Commons

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