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Government drone meets its match in the talons of freedom-loving attack eagle

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Aug 17, 2020, 3:48 PM EDT

Apparently the skies above Lake Michigan just aren’t big enough for both birds and ‘bots. In a resounding victory for raw nature over humankind’s pesky attempts to control it, a freedom-loving bald eagle went on the aerial attack last month, targeting a government mapping drone and sending it spiraling toward the watery depths.

According to Michigan’s department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (yep, that adds up to EGLE in acronym form), the bellicose incident occurred midway through a drone mapping excursion in the state’s Upper Peninsula region last month, with the eagle taking the remote bird squarely in its sights. This wasn’t some random, accidental collision either, according to the department’s tongue-in-beak write-up:

“The brazen eagle vs. EGLE onslaught took place near Escanaba in Michigan's Upper Peninsula on July 21 when EGLE environmental quality analyst and drone pilot Hunter King was mapping shoreline erosion for use in the agency's efforts to document and help communities cope with high water levels.” That’s when the satellite feed got spotty, prompting King to call the vessel back to base.

“King was watching his video screen as the drone beelined for home, but suddenly it began twirling furiously. ‘It was like a really bad rollercoaster ride,’ said King. When he looked up, the drone was gone, and an eagle was flying away. A nearby couple, whose pastimes include watching the local eagles attack seagulls and other birds, later confirmed they saw the eagle strike something but were surprised to learn it was a drone.”

Further forensics from the still-unrecovered drone’s data recorder revealed the eagle had ripped one of the drone’s propellers clean off, making contact 162 feet above the water and insta-braking the vessel’s 22-mph clip down to 10 mph. The rest of the data reads like a robot mayday report that has to be making EGLE’s planned drone replacement quake in its bird of prey-fearing boots.

“Within a half-second [from contact] the flight record shows the beginning of downward spiral along with ‘excessive spinning’ warnings,” with the drone sending out no fewer than 27 warning notifications over the next 3.5 seconds. That’s about all the time it had before ignominiously hitting the water, which data records — which tap out 34 feet before impact — indicate occurred at a speed greater than 20 mph.

EGLE (the department, not the bird) speculates that the eagle may have attacked the drone out of predatory instinct, a “territorial squabble” born of the perceived threat of another airborne presence, or  — and this is the theory we favor — “maybe it did not like its name being misspelled.”

At any rate, while the mapping project will resume once the drone’s intrepid successor takes to the skies, the department has no plans to recover the unceremoniously dispatched remains of its high-flying casualty. We’re guessing they know better than to mess with America’s national bird and its latest tech-y trophy. But they’re already thinking about re-skinning future models “to make them look less like seagulls” — just in case the Upper Peninsula’s winged warrior is still up there, drunk on drone-downing power and thirsty for more.