Michigan Drone Plunged to Watery Death in Eagle Attack

An American bald eagle perches on a tree for a moment of rest between flights across the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, a site designated an “Important Bird Area” by the prestigious Audubon Society. (Courthouse News photo/Brandi Buchman)

ESCANABA, Mich. (CN) — Announcing a setback of humankind’s efforts to rule the skies, Michigan officials announced Thursday that a bald eagle has sunk a state drone to the bottom of Lake Michigan.

The attack occurred on July 21 as a state environmental quality analyst was using a Phantom 4 Pro Advanced drone to map shoreline erosion around the lake, part of an effort to document and help communities cope with high water levels.

Hunter King, the analyst, was working to ground the drone after its fourth unmanned flight of the day near Escanaba in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula when the video screen showed it “twirling furiously” at a height of 162 feet.

When he looked up, the eagle was flying from the site of its kill, apparently uninjured.

“It was like a really bad rollercoaster ride,” King said, as quoted in a statement this morning from the festively named EGLE, short for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

Data from a drone that is no more after a July 21 eagle attack over Lake Michigan.

In the 3.5 seconds that it took to spiral to the water, the drone sent 27 warning notifications, one of which noted that the eagle had relieved it of its propeller.

Thursday’s release quotes a couple from the scene as saying they witnessed the eagle going in for a kill and were surprised to learn that its prey was mechanical.

It’s unclear what drove the eagle to attack the drone, but EGLE suggested some possibilities in its release: “The attack could have been a territorial squabble with the electronic foe, or just a hungry eagle. Or maybe it did not like its name being misspelled.” 

Whatever its reasons, the national bird cost Michigan about $950 in equipment. The drone’s model is no longer in production, so it will be replaced with a similar one. EGLE, meanwhile, said it is “considering steps to reduce the possibility of a repeat attack,” including changing drones’ paint jobs to make them look less like seagulls. 

When asked by EGLE whether the eagle could be cited or issued a violation notice, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources said legislative intervention would be required to endow the agency with a mechanism or authority over “individual, non-human wildlife.”

“Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do,” the spokesman said, as quoted by the EGLE. “Nature is a cruel and unforgiving mistress.”

King, the EGLE analyst, and the witnesses spent hours scanning the shore for the drone before the EGLE’s Arthur Ostaszewski resumed the search via kayak after data revealed that it landed in about 150 feet offshore where the water is 4 feet deep.

Ostaszewski’s initial attempts at snorkeling proved fruitless in the near-zero-visibility water. According to EGLE’s release, he then “walked a grid pattern shuffling his feet for two hours in soft muck (‘like I was playing Battleship and wanted to cover the entire board’).”

“When lightning began to accompany a cold drizzle,” EGLE added, Ostaszewski abandoned the search.

Birds large and small have been attacking drones for about as long as there have been drones to attack, to the point where there is a subgenre of viral videos devoted to avian-mechanical encounters, as well as collision-avoidance tip sheets from drone enthusiasts and the Australian government.

Eagles in particular are so effective at bringing down drones that they have been used in the Netherlands to bring down unauthorized craft near airports and other areas where they’re not wanted. 

Attacks by Australia’s giant wedge-tailed eagles make that continent especially difficult for drone operators. Andrew Chapman, director of operations for the drone services division of Australian surveying company AUAV, said in 2017 that the birds attack company drones on between one-eighth and one-sixth of all jobs. The eagles had rough years in the early part of the 20th century, when they were widely shot or poisoned, but have made major strides to recovery since then. 

It’s not clear how much of a problem bird-on-drone conflict is in the U.S. Though species populations are on the rebound, bald eagles are still a relatively infrequent sight in the lower 48 states after DDT use, habitat loss and hunting cratered their numbers in the mid-20th century. Other large birds, like the red-tailed hawk, have also declined in recent years in the Upper Peninsula. In 2019, the Fish and Wildlife Service reported that Michigan had an estimated 849 eagle nests — an enormous jump from the bird’s low point of 76 in the 1970s. 

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