Bird attacks on UAV’s are common: how to prevent them
We’re all too familiar with the risks that birds attacks can pose to aeroplanes, but our feathered friends can also bring down an airborne drone.
In October 2020, a seagull displaying a “level of aggression” attacked a UAV carrying out a rooftop survey in Stranraer, Scotland. The gull attack caused the drone, weighing 13 lbs, to crash down onto the roof of the Stranraer Academy, resulting in substantial damage to the secondary school in Dumfries and Galloway.
In the summer of 2019, a Herring Gull brought down a £30,000 surveillance drone at the Sellafield nuclear power plant.
Neither incident resulted in injury to those on the ground, but drone strikes by birds are surprisingly common. Attacks are usually carried out by large birds of prey or sizeable seagulls. UAV’s are either mistaken for a food source or they simply antagonise their feathered rivals for airspace by encroaching on their territory.
In this blog we will take you through some steps that you can take to minimise the danger of an airborne attack.
If you do find your pilotless pod in peril from a partridge, pigeon or peregrine, it pays to know the principles of flight techniques to pull out.
Birds of a feather…
Around the world, eagles are a common threat to UAVs. In Australia, Africa, North America and parts of Europe, these largest of the birds of prey are the biggest hazard when flying a drone. It’s not unheard of for an eagle to take a pop at a helicopter, never mind a 10kg drone.
In the UK, it tends to be seagulls which pose the biggest danger. Anyone who’s had a chip pinched from their hand during a visit to the seaside knows how cunning and aggressive large seabirds can be. The coastline of Great Britain is home to scores of seabird colonies and the appeal of the natural landscape and coastal resources mean that drone flights are common for all manner of reasons.
Inland, bird drone attacks by hawks are equally as brutal. Owl’s have been known to turn their head to a passing UAV. A flock of swallows may buzz around a drone and have a peck while even an angry goose may be heard honking at an encroaching machine.
Where eagles dare – know the bird modus operandus
A bird attack will tend to either come from behind or from above. A bird may follow a drone for a period before speeding up to assail it. A hungry bird of prey targets the prey with talons in a bid to rip it open to get at its flesh. They’re also incredibly intelligent hunters and they quickly learn how their target operates and moves in the sky. So a few rises and falls, or a sequence of direction changes may not shake off a ravenous raptor.
Seagulls attack in the same way when they feel threatened. The greatest danger from all bird attacks comes during the nesting season when jittery parents are protecting their newly hatched brood.
As a drone pilot, you’ll be well-honed in being constantly aware of your surroundings and your flight path every time you launch into the skies. But there are some specific risks which increase the chances of a bird downing your aircraft.
The most obvious is to avoid flying where large flocks have gathered. This may not be an option of course, but keep a safe distance from any bird or colony which has been disturbed, at least until they’ve settled down again or moved on.
Eat like a bird – know where the dining dangers lie…
You should also scout out your flight area to understand where food sources lie for carnivorous bird varieties. Areas rich with smaller birds and small mammals are prime hunting sites.
Meadows and fields with a light covering make excellent habitat for field and harvest mice where they can easily satisfy their vegetarian diet and build nests. Fields of short stems make them easy pickings for a hovering predator, so the risk of attack increases.
Free-range chicken farms make for a veritable feast for birds of prey. When chicks have hatched and are taking their first steps to peck around with their parents, a hungry raptor can pick off a meal with ease.
Avoid nesting locations. You might not always be able to identify them, but there are known places that are habitually frequented by certain species of birds. Flying during the breeding season will certainly increase the likelihood of a bird attack.
The early bird catches the worm – consider when to fly
You might want to consider flying in the early morning. Birds use thermals to make it easier to hover, rise and to move around. This hot air rising phenomenon is less likely when the air is cool early in the day and the birds are happy to rest it out until the sun warms the skies.
Feather your nest – Make your drone more visible
The flying scarecrow technique is favoured by some drone pilots. That means making your UAV look less like a fellow bird and more like a threatening machine which a feathered fiend will be warier of approaching.
No matter your chosen mode of camouflage, most birds of prey and seabirds simply aren’t afraid of anything. These predators are usually at the top of the food chain in their habitat and they haven’t innately learned how to be wary of intruders, especially those of a similar size to them, which many drones are.
It is also a good idea to make your drone more visible to yourself as a pilot. If your UAV finds itself receiving unwanted attention from a hungry hawk or a spooked seagull then you’ll need to employ some evasive action. You will be able to react much better if you can clearly see the drone as it comes under attack. Some reflective tape, mirrored discs, coloured decals and additional lights can do just that.
Some drone operators go so far as to fit their units with a noise-producing module. A loud screech or a thunderclap may be sufficient to make a feathered fiend and their friends think twice before swooping. But as any farmer who has deployed one of those thunderclap cannons we hear in the fields of the UK knows, many invading birds simply disregard the sound or become accustomed to the bangs and ignore them.
How to take evasive action when under a bird attack
You don’t necessarily need the fighter tactics of a Top Gun pilot to thwart the hawk – though it would, of course, help. However, you should be aware of the basics for seeing off a bird attack. They are: pulling up, pulling out, outrunning your foe (yes, really), manoeuvring to safety and ensuring you make a safe landing.
One of the most important things is to keep an eye on is your battery levels. Climbing sharply to reach a safe height is all well and good, but not so much so if you’ll conk out midway.
Wild goose chase – get away from there
If you’re in a position where you anticipate that a bird attack is imminent, your best bet is to get out of there.
That doesn’t mean running for the hills and certainly not flying the drone out of your visible line of sight. Pulling out of the immediate area will often result in the bird losing interest, particularly those that are keenly territorial. Use your UAV’s “return to home” function to help get you away.
Flap your wings – rise for the fight
As we’ve already said, when birds launch an attack on a drone, they’ll most often go in for the kill from above. If this happens, landing immediately is not a great tactic. The feathered foe will sense victory and dive bomb. Drones are not designed to land quickly. And once they do, a bird may only continue its swoop and then launch an attack on the grounded UAV.
Most experts would agree that in such a scenario, climbing is the best way to get out of trouble. This counter-intuitive action is not what the bird of prey is expecting from its usual victims. And it’s not a natural action for such a predator to have to soar in a near-vertical direction to take hold of its target. Most drones can actually climb faster than a bird and some are fitted with a “rapid climb” feature.
Survival of the fittest – can you overcome your opponent?
Another tactic could be to simply wear the big bird out. A machine – with plenty of juice left in the battery – will take longer to give up the fight than a sizeable bird reliant on the flapping of its wings. A bird may make two or three attempts at your drone before it heads for a thermal to take a break.
Don’t fall foul of the beak
Pay serious heed to legislation which protects the sites of endangered species. Unless you’re filming a David Attenborough documentary, flying a drone to film nesting sites or monitor activity isn’t ethical or even legal. You will need a licence to do so in many locations.
Preparation is key. Understand the landscape in which you’re flying. If necessary, add in some bird attack mitigation steps to your pre-flight checklist. Ultimately, operating a drone requires taking a responsible approach at all times. Birds are the most accomplished aeronauts in the skies. We can learn a lot from them.
Don’t be as dead as a dodo – start your drone training today
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When you contact us we will listen to the scope and requirements of your project, and then make recommendations on the best drone solution for you. We also offer drone training, making us a one-stop solution for starting to use drones in your business.