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'Brazen' bald eagle attack sends government drone to watery grave

"It was like a really bad roller coaster ride."

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 Don't trust a bald eagle around a drone.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Since the dawn of drones, a quiet war has been raging, and drones are losing. A Michigan bald eagle didn't take kindly to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE, appropriately) operating a drone in its territory last month. 

According to a Thursday statement from EGLE, drone pilot Hunter King, an environmental quality analyst, was flying the $950 Phantom 4 Pro Advanced drone to investigate shoreline erosion along Lake Michigan on July 21. He had called the drone back after a short flight when the eagle "launched an airborne attack."

King witnessed the aftermath when he saw the eagle flying away and the drone missing. "It was like a really bad roller coaster ride," King said of what he saw on the drone-tracking video screen. A pair of birdwatchers nearby confirmed the eagle's drone kill.

Despite extensive searches, the drone was not recovered. Flight data showed it took a nosedive 150 feet offshore into the chilly waters of Lake Michigan. 

This shows the drone's final, fateful flight path.

Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy

"Its speed instantly dropped from 22 mph to 10. Within a half-second the flight record shows the beginning of downward spiral along with 'excessive spinning' warnings," EGLE said in recounting the drone's final moments. The drone also warned that one of its propellers had been torn off.

EGLE is left to speculate about what might have triggered the attack, which may have been territorial or may have been a mistake if the eagle thought the drone might be edible. 

"EGLE's drone team is considering steps to reduce the possibility of a repeat attack, including possibly using "skins" or other designs on the aircraft to make them look less like seagulls," the organization reported.

This isn't the only drone to have fallen foul of the talons of an eagle. Wedge-tailed eagles in Australia took down a series of unmanned aerial vehicles operated by a mining company. Police in the Netherlands were looking into using eagles to snatch unwelcome drones out of the air.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources weighed in on whether the eagle could be cited for its act of vandalism. "Unfortunately, there's nothing we can do," a spokesperson told EGLE. "Nature is a cruel and unforgiving mistress."