What’s the best anti-drone technology money can buy? For the Dutch police, it’s no technology at all. It’s birds, specifically eagles. Back in 2016, law enforcement officials in Amsterdam were training the large raptors to snatch unlawfully flying drones from the sky and then do what eagles do best: take their prey to a nest or another secret spot where they are never heard from again. Some were calling the practice innovative while others said it’s downright bizarre, even barbaric, and a potential threat to the eagles as well as to humans that might end up being showered with drone wreckage. Mostly, though, analysts wondered whether these drone-hunting eagles, flying alone or in flocks, could carry out their mission better than technology-equipped aircraft and other sophisticated devices specifically designed to neutralize offending drones.
It turned out they couldn’t – not consistently at least. In early tests, showcased in a series of YouTube videos, the eagles attacked small drones, the kind hobbyists fly, and flew swiftly away. Fears from bird enthusiasts that the metal drones would damage the talons or beak of the eagles seemed unfounded. And just to make sure, the eagles’ talons were wrapped in protective guards that also prevented possible damage from drone rotor blades.
But when further tests were actually conducted and evaluated, it turned out the eagles weren’t so easily “programmable.” Even after a year of intensive – and expensive – training, they often decided to avoid the drones rather than attack them. Eagles weren’t police dogs, obediently responding on command. They had minds of their own. Even when properly incentivized, with food and other treats, the eagles only pursued drones already in their flight path, or nearly. These were not attack eagles after all.
As the drone industry has continued to develop, raptors may not be hunters anymore, but they’re still playing a vital role in the development of anti-drone technology. The US Air Force, for example, financed a large-scale study of how falcons fly and maneuver to help shape the design of drones specifically programmed to neutralize unlawfully flying drones – just as the Dutch police had hoped their eagles would. But falcons or peregrines occupy a much larger range of habitats and in fact, have been used by hunters for generations to go after desired prey.
The study was conducted by zoologists at Oxford University who seemed unusually sensitive to animal protection issues and said so publicly when they commenced their study. But they also were fascinated with the prospect of “bio-mimicking” the falcons in the design of drone hunter technology. The results of their study altered the traditional view that falcons maneuvered in the air in simple and predictable geometric patterns. Instead, it turned out they maneuvered more proactively, like a genuine predator, using principles of “proportional navigation,” which is similar to the technology that guides a visually-directed missile. US Air Force officials were delighted with that finding.
In the years since these breakthrough tests, anti-drone technology has grown and morphed into various forms. Somewhat surprisingly, the idea of deploying drone-hunting drones seems to have fallen out of favor. Instead of engaging in aerial combat with drone invaders, most of the new technology focuses on remote detection to report them to local authorities for subsequent apprehension of their owner. New technologies are also being developed to disrupt and neutralize the GPS navigational systems of invaders in the hopes of forcing them out of the sky. But Guard from Above, the company that grew out of the Dutch police experience still exists. It’s brought on more military advisors and continues to refine its training programs to ensure that eagles carry out their missions loyally.