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A bald eagle took down a government drone in Michigan, state officials stated on Thursday.
The Upper Peninsula bird of prey launched an airborne attack on a drone operated by a Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) pilot last month, tearing off a propeller and sending the aircraft to the bottom of Lake Michigan.
The $950 Phantom 4 Pro Advanced quadcopter is no longer in production and will be replaced with a similar model, according to yesterday's EGLE press release.
The brazen eagle versus EGLE onslaught occurred near Escanaba on Jul. 21 when environmental quality analyst and drone pilot Hunter King was mapping shoreline erosion to document high water levels.
King had completed about seven minutes of his fourth mapping flight of the day in the area when satellite reception became spotty. He pressed the "Go Home" recall button. The pilot watched his video screen as the drone beelined for home, reacquiring a strong feed after an abrupt turn. Suddenly, it twirled furiously through the sky in a downward spiral.
Flight records detailed the drone's final moments: the eagle stuck roughly four-tenths of a mile from King and 162 feet above the water. In the next three-and-a-half seconds, the drone sent 27 warning notifications including one indicating a propeller had been torn off, gaining momentum as it fell at 20.4 miles per hour.
"It was like a really bad rollercoaster ride," King stated. When he looked up, the drone was gone, and an eagle was flying away from the fight. A nearby bird-watching couple later confirmed that they witnessed the eagle strike an object mid-air but were surprised to learn it was a drone. Both King and the couple said that the eagle appeared uninjured with just a few ruffled feathers as it flew from the scene of the crime.
The couple joined King in a small search party, but hours of scouring the shoreline for the drone drummed up diddly-squat. Several days later, telemetric data pinpointed to the exact touchdown location: 150 feet offshore in four feet of Michigan lake water.
EGLE Unmanned Aircraft Systems coordinator Arthur Ostaszewski supplied a kayak and snorkeling gear to the hunt. With near-zero visibility in water darkened by tannin, Ostaszewski scrapped the snorkel and instead shuffled with his feet in a grid pattern for two hours in soft muck—"like I was playing Battleship and wanted to cover the entire board," he noted. He abandoned task when lightning began accompanied by a cold drizzle.
EGLE's drone team is considering steps to reduce the risk of a recurring attack while possibly using "skins" or other aircraft designs that resemble less like seagulls.
Bird-on-drone confrontations are not unusual. The Federal Aviation Administration has studied the trend in-depth, analyzing impacts using simulated birds. Technology publication 3D Insider published a guide for amateur drone operators last year about how to avoid bird strikes.
Eagle populations have fortunately rebounded in Michigan. A 2019 US Fish and Wildlife Service survey showed 849 active nesting sites, which is up from a low point of 76 nesting sites in the 1970s.
EGLE reached out to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in a "Can I speak to the manager?" style military tactic to see if the department could issue a citation or violation notice to the rogue eagle.
A spokesperson told the agency that the government has no mechanism or authority to "issue corrective action notices to individual, non-human wildlife," noting legislature policy would be the proper avenue, which is subject to challenges from impassioned patriots and conservationists alike. The bald eagle was chosen as a national emblem by the Continental Congress of 1782 and was awarded legal protection by the federal Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940.
"Unfortunately, there's nothing we can do," the spokesman stated. "Nature is a cruel and unforgiving mistress." Experts speculate a territorial squabble between an "electronic foe" or just a "hungry eagle."
Perhaps the proud bird felt that only one national symbol could exist in US skies. Or perhaps the majestic body was policing government overreach, a perfect metaphor for American defiance in the face of creeping authoritarianism.
State Representative Beau LaFave rallied for the bald eagle's victory on Twitter: "Bird can be heard singing 'I fought the law and I won.'"