Airborne paparazzi is animals' foe

Airborne paparazzi is animals' foe

Gizmo ZONE

Airborne paparazzi is animals' foe

On a sunny morning in October 2014, Christopher Schmidt strolled onto the grassy fields of Magazine Beach in Cambridge, Massachusetts. To get a better view of the fall scenery, he launched his drone, a DJI Phantom quadcopter equipped with a camera.

Then he saw it: a juvenile red-tailed hawk circling nearby. Within seconds, it swooped down and flipped the drone midair. Schmidt cut the propellers, and the bird flew off, apparently uninjured. The drone dropped to the ground, undamaged.

Schmidt, 31, posted a drone’s eye video of the encounter on YouTube. In other videos, ospreys, magpies, sea gulls and geese pursue and attack drones in flight. With a hop and punch, a kangaroo knocks one to the ground. A cheetah chases, leaps and swipes at one. A pugnacious ram head-butts a drone that hovers too low. And a particularly defiant chimpanzee at a zoo in the Netherlands whacks a buzzing intruder out of the sky with a branch.

As drones become smaller, cheaper and easier to operate, animals increasingly must contend with airborne paparazzi. Recreational drone users have driven lounging seals and their pups into the ocean and frightened otters into diving at Morro Bay, said Scott Kathey, the federal regulatory coordinator of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in California. In June last year, the National Park Service prohibited the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in its parks, in part because drones had disturbed bighorn sheep and other animals.

Such interactions have alarmed wildlife biologists — even as more of them are turning to drones to study animals. The devices can be safer, less expensive and often less disruptive than, say, a helicopter, jeep or boat. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. Drones have helped scientists unobtrusively survey penguins, leopard seals and dugongs. But the small size and agility of drones  can be uniquely irksome, even dangerous, to wildlife.

Bears, deer, coyotes and other species living on the borders of civilization have learned to tolerate and take advantage of human technology, prying open trash cans and leaping fences to get a meal. Drones, however, are not just another stationary component of human society. They are designed to be our avatars and go where we cannot. Scientists aren’t sure how easy it will be for animals to adapt.