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Drones killing birds: What can be done?

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Birds are under attack from drones (image by mohammed alborum via Flickr).

The lack of regulation around drones has caused the death of countless and precious birds, writes Dr Peter Fisher.

CANBERRA RESIDENTS recently woke to the news that their streets and neighbourhoods were soon to be graced by Google’s drone delivery system.  It was touted as a world first, an unspoken sense of pride that the city was moving on from being an epicentre of political intrigue to something resembling a Sidewalk Labs landscape.

Amid the buzz, it’s a fair guess that few would have stopped to countenance  – aside from a possible unwelcome interruption to their backyard barbies or the noise of whirling blades – what that tech-savvy future could hold for the wild inhabitants of their skies.

Home alone no more: The intersection of smart with corporeal

The immediate space over our heads was once a preserve of birds and things like moths, butterflies, dragonflies and bees. Except that is, in the vicinity of airports and helipads. In fact, conventional civil aviation regulations ban flights under 1000 feet above ground level in urban areas except in the vicinity of airports and helipads.  

The key question in places where there’s high drone traffic will be small bird/passerine reaction, known as the predator response.  Perceiving hobbyist drones, (now becoming widely available) for example, as killers, may interfere with their feeding times and breeding. As a result, this could lead to a decline in urban birds reversing recent gains in numbers calling major cities home.  

A further issue concerns the predators themselves:  There are numerous reports of raptors like eagles disarming and bringing down drones. Many unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), have carbon fibre blades that are very strong, and the injuries to human hands can be catastrophic, but the injuries to eagle talons are yet to be documented. It’s hard to see how an eagle can disarm a drone without suffering life-threatening injuries.  After an attack they obviously fly away, but they could easily have mortal wounds.

Clash of the Titans

In last August’s issue of the newsletter of BirdLife Australia Raptor Group, there’s a troubling account of a pilot who’d been flying a seven feet wingspan drone for land surveying in WA. Swooping down from above a Wedge Tail punched a hole in the fuselage causing loss of control and his $80,000 craft to crash.

These highly territorial birds have no intention of relinquishing their apex status as predators to some artefact of the tech revolution. It’s estimated that as much as one-fifth of drone flights are attacked by eagles in rural Australia. There’s simply no statistics on their fate but causalities could well outstrip births leading to a decline of a truly emblematic bird.

Under the Obama Administration, wind power companies had to commit to take additional measures if they killed or injured more eagles than they had estimated they would, or if new information indicated that eagle numbers were being impacted.  How would you police that with drones given that casualties could be spread over vast distances?

Stepping beyond the Civil Aviation Safety Authority's concept of “safety”

Civil aviation regulations are understandably pitched to human safety. They primarily regulate operations that present an unreasonable risk to human life. They are silent on what constitutes an unreasonable risk to life of, say, raptors. So the question remains whether this concept can extend to the lives of birds.

Whilst parliamentary committees into drones may eventually figure that one out, what of passerine birds’ breeding and feeding?  

A reflection on nature: The killing towers

Of no less concern are the tower blocks decked out with reflective glass. In the U.S., high rise buildings especially brightly illuminated ones, are thought to result in up to one billion collisions annually.

Building operators in Toronto under bird-friendly development guidelines are encouraged to undertake lights-out from 11 pm to 6 am during the spring and fall bird migrations which they can fine tune by tracking flight trajectories in real time. 

Moreover, Toronto has identified further strategies to make buildings more bird-friendly such as patterns that signal solid objects ahead to be avoided or muting reflections. 

Hidden connectivity

There are some useful yardsticks here for Australian buildings even though our cities don’t directly intersect any migratory flight paths of significance. However, there is with one particular exception: Canberra, where Bogong Moths are scattered by light pollution during their migration from the western plains. That depletion is possibly a contributing factor in a collapse of pigmy possum numbers — waiting patiently in the high country to gorge on them.

Bird-friendly UAVs?

Could a bird-friendly UAV be developed protecting raptors from catastrophic injuries? If nothing else the imbalance arising from taking out top predators mandates getting serious on this issue.

And, as drone design is aiming to draw on the flight pattern of birds it would be a nice to return the favour in some small way. Might it be possible for example, to use design parameters to combat turbine bird kills in America and building-in sonic deterrents like those used for airports, and possibly softer blades?

And, stuff to do closer to home

Back in the cities, there’s a need to get into the mind of passerines and small birds in urban settings.

Will they view drones as predators such that their feeding and breeding goes out of whack. Or do they become habituated to them only to be progressively taken out by opportunistic Goshawks? There are heaps of other behavioural unknowns notable amongst which is an incident where Galahs regarded a small drone as a flock leader.

And, what’s the extent of bird building collisions in our CBDs? Should we do development codes along the lines of Toronto and NYC and undertake regular censuses? Rainbow Lorikeets have been sighted flying down the glass-steel canyon of Collins Street in Melbourne for instance.

And what changes can be made to rules governing UAVs to make them more cognisant of the fact that a long-standing habitat is being invaded?

Reset

This has been a story of the unintended consequences of punching into that space above our heads – long the domain of birds and insects – either by UAVs or glass megaliths. For species already stressed out of their socks by climate change, the former could well be the last straw.  

Creatures which have enriched our city gigs by song and appearance over the last decade or so – numbered amongst which are millennium drought immigrants like Little Corellas – have a new battle on their hands.  

The irony is that a device which has the capacity to contribute to our understanding of the natural world could end up unravelling significant strands of that very same world unless protocols affecting (all) UAVs are developed to mitigate impacts.

It would be unconscionable to do nothing in the light of our abysmal showing on biodiversity loss.

Dr Peter Fisher is an Adjunct Professor at the School of Architecture & Built Environment, Deakin University.

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