Dutch Firm Trains Eagles to Take Down High-Tech Prey: Drones


Birds of prey have the advantage of being able to bring drones safely to the ground, rather than causing them to crash, which can pose risks to those below.

“We have seen a number of incidents around airfields, and, in the end, we want to be prepared should anyone want to use a drone for an attack of some sort,” Mr. Wiebes said.

This meeting of biological skills and cutting-edge science should not be a surprise, Mr. Wiebes added. He said technology could evolve from nature, “a workbench of thousands of generations in which solutions are found for problems.”

The man who created the project, Sjoerd Hoogendoorn, a security consultant, put it more colorfully: “Mostly, the most crazy ideas work the best.”

Photo

An eagle with a drone it brought to the ground in Katwijk, the Netherlands. The birds are rewarded with a piece of meat.

Credit
Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Mr. Hoogendoorn came up with the program at home while researching drone threats. Through a mutual friend, he contacted Ben de Keijzer, a bird handler with a quarter of a century’s experience.

After initial trials, the two men formed a company based in The Hague called Guard From Above, and they approached the Dutch police in late 2014. What appealed to the authorities was the chance to use “a low-tech solution for a high-tech problem,” said Mr. Hoogendoorn, adding that drones “can be used for very positive, good things but also bad things.”

For his eagles, the reward for a successful interception is a piece of meat, and they were accomplishing their task despite the wind — which handlers say creates a bigger problem for drone operators than for birds.

Worries have been raised that birds could be struck and seriously injured by a drone’s blades. Mr. Hoogendoorn said that the safety of the animals was a top priority, and that although eagles’ talons had scales to protect them, work was underway to give them more covering. Mr. Wiebes said safety measures could include some form of glovelike sheath for the talons.

Mr. Hoogendoorn said his interest in security issues had been deepened by a chance visit to New York during the week of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“It made a huge impact on me as a visitor,” he said. “I have been waiting for my chance. I think this is a good way to make the world a little bit more safe.”

The initiative is timely, given the number of drone incidents in Europe.

In France, drones were found close to nuclear power stations in 2014. The same year in Britain, a man was fined after losing control of a device near a nuclear submarine facility.

The next year, another Briton was prosecuted after flying a drone over soccer stadiums and tourist attractions.

In the Netherlands, there was a near miss involving a drone and an aircraft at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol in April, the type of episode that seems worryingly frequent.

In January, a drone was spotted between two low-flying Tornado military aircraft in Scotland. The next month, Heathrow Airport near London reported a drone incident involving an Airbus A320 passenger plane whose captain assessed the risk of collision as high.

“The drone flashed beneath by about 100 to 150 feet and slightly left of the fuselage,” a report said, describing the object as black, with a red strobe light on top and a diameter of two to three feet. “The entire event lasted no more than three or four seconds, making any evasive action virtually impossible.”

Britain has also faced a surge in drone flights near prisons. There were 33 sightings last year, compared with two in 2014. In December, drugs, a mobile phone, a charger and USB cards were found on a drone at Oakwood prison in the West Midlands region of England.

Photo

A bird handler from Guard From Above, a Dutch company that trains the eagles.

Credit
Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Alan McKenna, an associate lecturer in the law school at the University of Kent, said the experiment with birds of prey reflected growing concerns in Europe.

“There are so many unknowns: What if a drone does hit an aircraft? Can it bring that aircraft down?” Dr. McKenna said, adding that “research is being carried out now” on those questions.

“We all know it’s going to be feasible to use a drone with a bomb attached,” he said.

Around the world, the authorities are waking up to the potential threats, and advantages, of drones. The United States has introduced a federal registration program, and NASA is working on a traffic management system for drones.

But in Europe the rules vary by country. For example, Dr. McKenna said, Ireland has a registration requirement, but Britain, where a small, effective drone can be bought for as little as 100 pounds, or about $150, there is no control over the sale or registration of drones. He said rules existed for where and how drones may be flown.

“We have got regulations that make certain types of drone flying illegal, but how do we enforce them?” Dr. McKenna said.

The challenge for governments is how to encourage the economic potential of drone use while combating security risks.

Dr. McKenna said he was skeptical that birds of prey would be adopted widely to deter the illegal use of drones, but he acknowledged that they might be one part of the solution.

“You couldn’t have an eagle 24/7 in a particular area,” he said, adding that one possible use would be at public events like a music festival.

Mr. Hoogendoorn said teams of eagles could be placed on standby at high-risk locations. Different birds could be deployed at night, he added, though it is harder to fly drones after dark.

Eagles are already used around some airports to scare away birds that can pose a danger to aircraft if sucked into engines, Mr. Wiebes said, suggesting that birds of prey are suited to this type of location.

The Dutch police expect to use birds of prey that, “instead of hunting for a dove or a rabbit, will hunt for these drones,” he said.

“It’s majestic to see,” Mr. Wiebes said, as a magnificent bald eagle perched on the arm of a handler. “But they are not pets.”

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