When Christopher Schmidt's video of a hawk attacking a drone went viral in October, many cheered for the avian’s territorial win. There is certainly something satisfying about watching nature trump technology, but as New America’s Ariel Bogle deftly explained, this elation may have more to do with the human fear of surveillance than our love of nature—maybe compounded by our sense that birds have earned their right to the skies more so than any drone.
Either way, as the rise of drones is increasingly inevitable, obvious questions come up about how their presence will affect birds. This is swiftly changing territory, but here’s what we know right now.
How are drones regulated?
Known officially as ‘unmanned aircraft systems’, drones fall under the watch of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the United States, which also oversees airports, airplanes, and commercial space vehicles. This body heavily restricts any commercial drones used to generate income, granting permits on a case-by-case basis only. Users looking to use drones for more altruistic purposes, including scientific research or rescue missions, can get special permits to fly (doing so requires navigating some bureaucratic red tape). But recreational drones, like those owned by hobbyists, are relatively free to explore the airways with some restrictions: they have to be at least three miles away from airports, weigh 55 pounds or less, and fly below 400 feet, to ensure they don’t have the heft or height to cause accidents with other airborne vehicles.
Are drones banned anywhere in the United States?
Yes. In June, the U.S. National Park Service banned recreational drones in all of its national parks, largely to protect wildlife. (The parks are still open to research drones with permits.) “We’ve called a time-out while we analyze [drone] activity and what effect it’s going to have on all park resources,” says Jeffrey Olson, a national parks spokesman. The crackdown came after a spate of bad drone behavior. Worst offenders included one that crashed into Yellowstone’s pristine Grand Prismatic hot springs in August, leaving behind remnants that officials fear may block the spring’s flow; a hovering drone that agitated a group of big horn sheep in Zion National Park in May; and a drone that a man steered into off-limits habitat for nesting mew gulls in Denali National Park. “There is a video of him flying it right over the signs saying this area is off limits because of the nesting birds,” Olson says. The NPS says they may consider opening up demarcated areas in parks where people can fly drones, but the crackdown will stay in place while park officials weigh up its pros and cons.
Can drones hurt birds?
So far, drones don’t seem to have caused any bird deaths. But outside of national parks, one fact is clear: recreational drones are on the rise, and no one is sure what that spells for avians. “Now, we theoretically are reaching out to encounter organisms in places where they’re not used to having humans,” says Kevin McGowan, a behavioral ecologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology who is interested in using drones (considerately) in his own research on crows. Videos online already reveal a pattern of amateur videographers driving birds away with clumsily steered recreational drones, something that could cause problems during nesting time or in some sensitive habitats. Nicholas Lund, bird expert and author, also points out that if drones populate the skies, they’ll be met by an uptick in strikes from territorial birds—like the one in this video. In that regard, birds have so far demonstrated their prowess, most likely because the recreational drones most common in the airspace now just aren’t big or strong enough to resist avian attack. However, it’s still unknown if those birds have just been lucky to fly away unscathed, or if certain features of these machines—like unprotected blades—have the potential to harm.
How could drones help birds?
Drones have enormous conservation impact, too. “The potential is extremely exciting for accessing various places without the same impact as one would have walking through an area,” McGowan explains. For instance, instead of climbing trees and disturbing the nesting crows he’s trying to study, he’d use his quadrocopter to investigate their treetop habitats more covertly. Biologist Leanne Hanson is working with the United States Geological Survey in one of the first studies of its kind, using unmanned aircraft equipped with infrared sensors that count and monitor Sandhill Cranes and Greater Sage-Grouse from a safe distance. Drones can also crime-bust by tracking poaching from above. And they save lives. Light aircraft crashes are the leading cause of death for wildlife biologists who fly in small planes to survey landscapes below; drones allow them to circumvent that risk.
Can we make drones bird-friendly?
Outside of national parks, the FAA says right now there aren’t plans to confine drones to ‘special airspace’. So in the future, birds will be facing drones across the airwaves. Taking this into account, ideally lawmakers will keep a close watch on the size, noise levels, and places drones fly to. In the meantime, recreational users can take their cue from researchers who use drones. Heavyweight blades can be enclosed with guards to protect birds in any collisions, drones shouldn’t get too close to avians—especially territorial ones—and users should be mindful of noise levels around flocks or nesting birds. In the future we may have even smarter drones: researchers are already engineering ones that respond more cautiously to obstacles, which could protect birds in the long run.
What does the future hold?
In 2012 Congress ordered the FAA to draw up a plan for the integration of drones into the airspace, and the organization is now writing rules for next year that could make it easier to get permits. The National Park Service, too, says their ban on recreational drones won’t be everlasting. “We think there are parts in the National Park System where flying unmanned aircraft is appropriate,” Olson says. These decisions will populate the airways with more drones—recreational and commercial. Whether birds will receive special protections when more of these vehicles are in the skies, is something that will likely evolve with the law.
For now at least, the filmic evidence reveals that when it comes to fighting off 55 pound drones, birds still have the upper hand—or wing, beak, and talon.
Correction: Thie original version of this story stated that drones were banned in all 58 national parks—it has been udpated to reflect the fact that drones are banned across the National Park system. It has also been updated to reflect the fact that the National Park Service is only considering the possibility of specifying areas for drone flight, not lifting the drone ban.