France deploys new force to combat drones – and it has claws
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The French army is using birds of prey to take down drones to protect its air bases as well as to secure public airspace in case a drone poses a threat.
The pilot programme started last spring at Mont de Marsan air base in southwestern France with a team of four raptors – three females and one male. They are taught from a very young age until they become fully-trained at around 8 months, when they reach full maturity. The eagles used in France are bred using artificial insemination since eagles are a protected species and harvesting wild eggs is strictly forbidden.
Part of the training involves familiarising the eagles with the sight of drones. Even before they hatch, the eagles are surrounded by drones so they become part of their natural environment. Eventually they are taught to associate drones with being fed.
“A drone means food for these birds,” Gerald Machoukow, the military base's falconer, told FRANCE 24’s Fanny Allard. “Now they automatically go after them.”
The falconers also try to reproduce the conditions under which a bird will chase its prey. Since they normally begin a hunt by swooping down from a great height, these eagles are trained to take off from rooftops or man-made towers.
The drones being targeted are small, weighing less than 2kg, and are readily available on the commercial market. Nevertheless, their use in sensitive zones – including during demonstrations and around airports – has led to accidents that prompted France and other countries to introduce restrictions on unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.
Furthermore, these battery-powered drones can be used for criminal purposes – they are large enough to contain an explosive charge, carry a camera to make illegal recordings, or smuggle weapons or mobile phones into a prison. A radioactive drone once landed on the roof of the Japanese prime minister’s office.
The use of off-the-shelf drones carrying makeshift bombs has also become more common in war zones. Last October, an Islamic State group drone packed with explosives killed Kurdish fighters and injured a member of the French special forces.
According to the squadron commander of France's aviation safety service, eagles are very reliable in stopping drones. “Just as a soldier with a gun can sometimes miss a target, eagles can also miss their targets – but it's rare," he said.
Animal welfare concerns
Royal eagles, which can hunt prey up to 25kg – the size of a deer – are often used by the programme due to their strength.
In the Netherlands, the use of eagles in police work sparked animal welfare concerns among falconers. When eagles intercept a drone, a pressure of 250kg per square centimetre is exerted on their claws.
Dutch police told the NRC daily newspaper that their eagles have so far not suffered any problems from intercepting small drones, but that larger drones may damage their claws. Eagles in the French programme wear kevlar and leather claw coverings as a protective measure.
The programme has been successful enough that the French air force has decided to expand the team with four more eagles by the summer. The first official report on the programme will be released in June.