Drones—they’re increasingly everywhere. While there are many legitimate uses for the technology (filmmaking, pure fun, and, yes, bird monitoring), their increasing ubiquity also means they’re showing up in places they shouldn’t. So now law enforcement groups around the world are struggling to figure out how exactly to get a drone out of the sky when it shows up somewhere it shouldn’t.
Tokyo has experimented with net-wielding drones to lasso unwelcome aircraft, and the U.S. National Parks Service has banned them outright. But in the Netherlands, the National Police are testing a decidedly birdier approach. Working with a company called Guard From Above, the police announced this week that they are training birds of prey to hunt drones as they would a tasty meal—ensnaring them with their massive talons and bringing them down safely. The company is entirely devoted to training raptors of all varieties to bring down drones, something they call a “low tech solution for a high tech problem.”
The birds in the video above (which, yes, is in Dutch) are Bald Eagles. For ornithologist Geoff LeBaron, director of Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, this was a bit of a surprise—because they’re not European birds. Their range is limited to North America, from most of Canada and Alaska south to Northern Mexico.
“Bald Eagles are a little bit more mild-mannered than other raptors,” he says, speculating as to why they may have imported the birds, “and it could be that they’re easier to train.”
LeBaron also points out that though Golden Eagles are used quite often in falconry, they are slightly larger and may be more powerful than Bald Eagles, so may be more inclined to just swat the drone out of the air. “What struck me was that these birds are grabbing [the drones] and carrying them to the ground,” he says. “They’re capturing them and not just knocking them down.”
LeBaron suspects that the security firms working on these projects might wish to preserve the drone, perhaps as evidence or to trace it back to its operator, and that requires a lighter touch. Bald Eagles, then, might be a raptorial Goldilocks: big enough to take control over the drone, but small enough not to smash it to hundreds of tiny plastic bits. That they’re no longer listed by the Endangered Species Act might make it easier for Europeans to acquire the species through captive breeding.
The method clearly works, but is it good for the bird? There’s nothing inherently problematic with falconers training their birds in this way. One concern is whether the raptors’ feet would hold up against the rotors of larger, sturdier drones, but as LeBaron points out, like other raptors, Bald Eagles have very high visual acuity. “I suspect they can see exactly where the rotors are better than we could,” he says. And even if they did make contact with a rotor, he thinks that it would be unlikely to do any real damage—at least, for most commercially available drones, which tend to be relatively lightweight.
More importantly, evidence indicates that wild birds treat drones as they would any other flying critter, be it a meal or competitor. “Their instinct is to strike these things in the center of the body,” says LeBaron. Eagles have an innate, adaptive system for attacking other birds, and these drones appear to activate that system, leading them to attack the drone just as they would another bird—in the center of its back. Thankfully, that’s also well away from the sweep of those spinning rotors—in other words, eagles’ natural instincts work well against this new breed of artificial bird. The only thing they need to be trained to do is return the drones safely to the ground, completely intact.
The project is still in its testing phase; the police still have a few more months to determine whether the eagles represent a viable, sustainable anti-drone technology. Humans have long partnered with animals to meet our goals—pigeons once served as spies during World War II, after all. Why not employ a troop of eagles to intercept hostile drones?