Culture

Australian eagles 9, drones 0

If taking down UAVs was a sport, wedge-tailed eagles would be the $100,000 prize winners.

Two eagles attacked a UAV. The first, with its claws sunk into the UAV's wings, snapped an incredible photo of the second.

Rick Steven. Used with permission

It's all true: Australia has the toughest wildlife. The wedge-tailed eagle, Australia's largest bird of prey, with a wingspan of up to 2.5 metres (8.2 feet), is proving it. In the Goldfields of Western Australia, mining company Gold Fields is competing with the birds -- for the skies.

So far, the birds are winning. The company has been using unmanned aerial vehicles as a surveillance tool since July 2014. The Trimble UX5 made of lightweight foam and carbon fiber, is equipped with a 24-megapixel camera for high-resolution image capture, has a cruising speed of 80 kilometres per hour (50 mph) and has a wingspan of one metre (39.4 inches). Each unit costs around AU$10,000, with another AU$10,000 for the camera.

It's also no match for the wedge-tailed eagle. Since the company started using the UAVs in its St Ives operation, 20 kilometres from the mining town of Kambalda, it has lost 10 of the units. One of those was lost to human error. The other nine? Eagles.

"That [wedge-tailed eagle] is my single biggest problem in the environment where I work for the UX5...I am on my 12th [UAV]," said surveyor Rick Steven, who pilots the UAVs, at the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy's Open Pit Operators' Conference in Kalgoorlie-Boulder, according to a report by the ABC.

A Trimble UX5 UAV camouflaged to look like a wedge-tailed eagle.

Rick Steven. Used with permission

"I am operating two at the moment...Nine out of the other 10 have been destroyed courtesy of this guy [eagle] -- he's its natural enemy."

Each UAV unit costs around AU$10,000, with another AU$10,000 for the camera. All up, the eagles have cost Gold Fields over AU$100,000, but even so, the improvements to the company's operations have been worth a few teething problems with eagles, Steven said. The UAVs make use of digital photogrammetry to model the landscape and calculate the size of the excavation with speed and precision, freeing up human workers to complete other tasks.

The wedge-tailed eagle is a protected species in Australia, so finding a solution to the problem of the birds' territorialism was not easy. Steven and his team tried camouflaging the UAVs, but the solution ended up being one of timing.

"We fly early in the morning," he said in a phone conversation. "They're big birds and need a lot of thermal activity to get up in the air, so we do our flying while they're still in bed before it gets too warm."

The current UAV Steven is flying has currently completed its 86th flight, and has been in operation for six months without incident.

The eagles' aversion to invasive machinery is well known. In 2015, footage of a wedge-tailed eagle taking down a drone went viral.