As drones become smaller, cheaper and easier to operate, animals increasingly must contend with airborne paparazzi
On a sunny morning in October 2014, Christopher Schmidt strolled onto the grassy fields of Magazine Beach, a public park along the Charles River in Cambridge, Mass. To get a better view of the fall scenery, he launched his drone, a DJI Phantom quadcopter equipped with a camera.
Then he saw it: a juvenile red-tailed hawk circling nearby. Within seconds, it swooped down — wings outstretched, tail flared, talons open — and flipped the drone midair.
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Schmidt cut the propellers, and the bird flew off, apparently uninjured. The drone dropped to the ground, undamaged except for a slight bend in its plastic landing gear.
Schmidt, a 31-year-old software developer, posted a drone’s eye video of the encounter on YouTube. It has been viewed about five million times. And it is hardly the only evidence of conflict between animals and so-called unmanned aerial vehicles.
In other videos, ospreys, magpies, sea gulls and geese pursue and attack drones in flight. With a hop and punch, a kangaroo knocks one to the ground. A cheetah chases, leaps and swipes at one. A pugnacious ram head-butts a drone that hovers too low. And a particularly defiant chimpanzee at a zoo in the Netherlands whacks a buzzing intruder out of the sky with a branch.
As drones become smaller, cheaper and easier to operate, animals increasingly must contend with airborne paparazzi. At a recent conference, Rich Swayze of the Federal Aviation Administration estimated that one million drones will be sold in the United States this Christmas.
Yet the agency has still not released official regulations for commercial use of drones. As for recreational users, it strongly encourages them to follow its basic safety guidelines, which hardly mention animals.
Recreational drone users have driven lounging seals and their pups into the ocean and frightened otters into diving at Morro Bay, said Scott Kathey, the federal regulatory coordinator of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in California.
In June last year, the National Park Service prohibited the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in its parks, in part because drones had disturbed bighorn sheep and other animals.
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Such interactions have alarmed wildlife biologists — even as more of them are turning to drones to study animals. The devices can be safer, more nimble, less expensive and often less disruptive than, say, a helicopter, jeep or boat. “The last thing a scientist wants to do is alter the animal’s natural behaviour,” Kathey said. “They just want to be a fly on the wall.”
Sometimes it works, sometimes not. Drones have helped scientists unobtrusively survey penguins, leopard seals, sand hill cranes and dugongs. In Patagonia, scientists are flying drones through the 12-foot-tall exhalations of whales, scooping up their mucus in order to monitor their health. And the Kenya Wildlife Service has found that surveillance drones may reduce poaching of elephants and rhinos.
But the small size and agility of drones — and their mosquito-like invasiveness — can be uniquely irksome, even dangerous, to wildlife. Scientists have only just begun to examine the risks and benefits in detail, but already it is clear that much depends on the species and how the drones are deployed.
Last year David Grémillet, an ecologist at the National Centre for Scientific Research in France, and a team of colleagues repeatedly flew Phantom quadcopters near wild mallards loafing on a pond in the Zoo du Lunaret in Montpellier. Later, the team aimed the drones toward flamingos and common greenshanks wading in a brackish lagoon near the Rhone river delta.
The researchers varied the speed and incoming angle of the drones during 204 approach flights, watching the birds through binoculars. Eighty per cent of the time, the scientists got a drone within four meters, or about 13 feet, of the birds without any observable reaction.
Nearly every time a drone descended vertically, however, the birds moved away or took flight, probably because that angle evoked the approach of a raptor.
“We clearly see a potential for research, but only if you assess the risk to wildlife first,” Dr Grémillet said. “Each species will have its own reaction.” Territorial birds such as hawks, crows and sea gulls are likely to assault drones, he noted. But the devices could be perfect for surreptitiously observing waterfowl from 150 feet or higher.
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Nevertheless, Dr Grémillet and his co-authors cautioned in their study that even when animals show no overt reactions to drones, “this does not mean that the drone presence was not stressful for the animals.” To be certain, one would have to measure a creature’s internal physiology.
Recently a team of American scientists set out to do exactly that. They programmed autonomous quadcopters to fly in circles over four adult black bears and several cubs in forest, shrub land and farms in northwest Minnesota. In an earlier study, the adult bears had been outfitted with GPS collars and small heart rate monitors.
Judging by appearance alone, the bears did not seem particularly disturbed. They rarely made an attempt to evade the drones, although one did stop in place and stare skyward.
During every drone flight, however, the bears’ heart rates increased markedly above baseline, by as much as 123 beats per minute, or 400 per cent, in one instance. The buzzing drones were apparently alarming enough to rouse another bear from hibernation.
“These bears are used to human sounds and sights like farm equipment and roadways, and I had no idea how they were going to respond,” said Mark Ditmer, a biologist at the University of Minnesota, who led the study. “But some of the heart rate readings were rather shocking. I don’t know if we have ever measured such a dramatic change other than when an animal has been shot by a hunter.”
Bears, deer, coyotes and other species living on the borders of civilization have learned to tolerate and take advantage of human technology, prying open trash cans and leaping fences to get a meal. Drones, however, are not just another stationary component of human society. They are designed to be our avatars and go where we cannot. Scientists aren’t sure how easy it will be for animals to adapt.
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“There are so many videos on the Internet where you can see drones colliding with birds,” Dr Grémillet said. “Some people find it funny. I don’t. My opinion is that if everyone starts to use drones, it will be a huge mess.”
David Bird, an emeritus professor of wildlife biology at McGill University, has used drones to survey geese, terns and nesting birds of prey. Some of the raptors he studies aggressively defend their nest from any intruder. Dr Bird was once in a helicopter attacked by an osprey.
On the whole, he has found that drones make controlled scientific surveys safer, faster and less stressful for both people and animals. But he is still concerned about “the Wild West show” of recreational drone use.
“Some of those propeller blades can do serious damage,” he said. “Even a responsible hobbyist might not be aware of all the risks.”
This article originally appeared on The New York Times.