For the past year, the Dutch National Police and raptor training company Guard From Above have been investigating whether eagles could be an effective way of dealing with potentially dangerous drones. The trials have been a resounding success, Dutch police officials said, and today they announced that they’re ready to operationally deploy an anti-drone team of specially trained bald eagles and their human partners.
This video shows a demo that the Dutch police put on yesterday of a drone threatening a mock state visit. The eagle vs. drone action starts at about 1:50.
“We use all kinds of technological solutions, like electromagnetic pulses, or even laser technology, and one of the projects is the use of birds of prey,” Michel Baeten, one of the officials in charge of the program, told the AFP. He added that the birds are “probably one of the most effective countermeasures against hostile drones.”
The eagle you see in the video is a female bald eagle named Hunter. In many species of raptors, the females are significantly larger than the males, which is likely why they were chosen for this job. Hunter is only 2, and the iconic white head and tail feathers won’t grow in for another few years.
Hunter has been trained not just to grab drones out of the air, but also to take them to “a place designated by the police” rather than just go straight to the ground. As you can see in the video, Hunter isn’t always successful: she brings down the drone about 80 percent of the time. One of the advantages of using a raptor is that 80 percent is easily good enough, since Hunter can always just circle around and try again. You may also have noticed that it looks like she’s eating the drone, but that’s just part of the training process: pieces of chicken or turkey are taped to the tops of the drones used for training to provide the birds with positive reinforcement when they successfully make a catch.
For drones the size of this Phantom (which is typical for consumer drones), there isn’t much of a risk of injury to the eagle during the catch or landing. According to police spokesman Dennis Janus, over the course of months of testing, “none of the eagles were hurt, but as for the drones, none of them survived.” But larger drones may be more dangerous, so the police are developing a special talon protector made of Kevlar.
All of the eagles currently in the program have been trained by Guard From Above, but the Dutch police have purchased four five-month old bald eagle chicks, and begun training 100 humans, to form their own raptor flying squad. The chicks will spend the next year getting bigger (and learning that drones are prey) before being deployed to several police units across the Netherlands next summer, and police forces in other countries have expressed interest in raptor flying squads of their own.
Updated 13 September 2016, 11:21 a.m. ET