Attack of the Drone-Snatching Eagles

A natural solution to a growing threat

The eagle is about to win this round. (Guard From Above)
airspacemag.com

Recently, a number of European agencies have started training eagles and other birds of prey to snatch drones from the sky as a defense against criminals, terrorists, or any other drone pilots who deliberately or accidentally invade restricted airspace. In the wrong hands, even small consumer drones can cause serious damage to manned aircraft near airports, be used in terrorist strikes, or cause general havoc, particularly in crowded cities.

The Dutch National Police were the first to use birds of prey, eagles specifically, as a counter-drone measure. They intend to have a trained squadron of eagles ready by this summer to deploy to airports and other sensitive areas where unauthorized drones might cause big problems. The Dutch police chose this low-tech answer due to the renowned aerial hunting prowess of eagles, which can identify drone-size objects from as far away as two miles. Eagles are able to snatch and carry prey weighing up to four pounds, so most popular consumer drones are no problem.

First the birds need to be trained to take out threatening drones, however. The Hague-based company, Guard From Above, is working with the Dutch National Police to teach eagles how to identify, close in on, and take out consumer drones using specialized incentive training. Guard From Above trains the birds from a young age to bring the flying machines to the ground intact, rather than ripping them apart in midair, which reduces the chance of hurting people below.

Some have raised concerns that drone-hunting might cause harm to the birds, but the Dutch National Police insist that none of the eagles were hurt during training. Trainers note that scales on the bird’s talons protect them, and are looking into ways to protect them from spinning propellers.

Along with these experiments by the Dutch and French, the United Kingdom is investigating using birds of prey to guard prisons from contraband-carrying drones. Still uncertain, though, is whether these kinds of programs ultimately will prove more successful than technological solutions to identifying and downing rogue drones.

About Ed Darack
Ed Darack

Air & Space/Smithsonian contributing editor Ed Darack’s forthcoming book, The Final Mission of Extortion 17 (Smithsonian Books, 2017), covers the story of the people and circumstances of Extortion 17 and its downing in Afghanistan in August 2011. The shootdown was the single deadliest incident in the war in Afghanistan. The book grew out of his article in the Feb./Mar. 2015 issue. See his website and Facebook page for more information.

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