Imagine for a moment that you are a person who owns a falcon. You don’t own the falcon just to have an unusual and intimidating pet but because you are a licensed falconer, among the growing ranks of Americans dedicated to the ancient and complex art of training birds of prey to hunt in partnership with humans. As part of your falcon’s schooling process, you must teach her to fly high, high enough to scan for prey and gain enough altitude to speedily swoop down on a smaller animal—and this is a challenging task, especially if you are a human being who is stuck on the ground. An increasing number of falconers around the world are solving this ancient logistical problem with a decidedly modern tool: a drone.
Unfortunately for falconers, most birds of prey do not emerge from the nest pre-wired to fly high: They have to be taught, and there is no forcing a falcon to do anything. Until drones came along, many falconers resorted to using helium-filled balloons and large kites to train their birds to attain higher altitudes. They’d dangle a lure—a piece of quail or another tasty chunk of meat—from the airborne object using a piece of string or a rope, motivating the birds to fly higher and to become accustomed to reaching more lofty altitudes. But as anyone who’s attempted to fly a kite or hang onto a balloon in a slightly stiff wind is intimately aware of, kites and balloons can be very hard to control and require either adequately windy conditions or ever-more expensive helium to function properly.
Thus the appeal of drones: They’re easy to fly and to control due to advanced stabilization and GPS technology, and they’re stable enough to stand up to the considerable impact of a bird of prey seizing the lure from below. Instead of contending with stiff winds or unpredictable kite movements, falcon trainers who use drones can simply fly up to their desired altitude and release the bird to go after the lure. Drones suitable for falconry don’t need fancy cameras or other features adapted for the consumer photography market. They need only to be stable under diverse wind conditions and with a long enough battery life to allow the falconers to get themselves and their birds situated to begin the flight.
Some trainers attach a small parachute to the prize dangling from the bottom of the drone, allowing the falcon to tumble with the simulated “prey” when it strikes it (and also creating the impression that dead quails have taken to skydiving). This video illustrates the process, from the drone’s point of view:
Training a bird to associate food with a drone has another advantage for falconers: Birds that are lost or simply feeling recalcitrant may not come back to a person on the ground, but they are much better able to find their way back to an airborne landmark. As the drones are less likely to drift than kites or balloons, they present a good way to get flighty birds back. And beyond training or recovery purposes, drones simply provide a good way to keep birds muscular and in condition to fly and to hunt—an aerial, avian equivalent of taking the dog to the park for a long game of Frisbee.
Are falconers worried that the drone will hurt the bird? Yes, they are, but training takes this into consideration, and injuries appear to be a relatively rare thing. Conscientious falconers, says Nevada-based falconer Corey Dalton, get their birds used to the drones slowly, adapting their approach to the proclivities of each individual animal, slowly introducing both the drones and their characteristic wasplike sound into their lives. “We’ve got birds that have never seen a drone before go straight up to it and pull the bait,” says Dalton. “Some birds see it as a mechanical object, some see it as a bird of prey or some other predator that could hurt them.”
“Honestly, it hasn’t been an issue,” says long-time California falconer Adam Chavez of the potential danger from whirling multirotor blades. “My birds are so used to looking up at the balloon, they just see the lure hanging there, and they know to go up and get it.” If one of his falcons for some reason decides to fly above the drone, Chavez says that moving the drone up above the bird is easy enough to accomplish. (And a determined bird of prey most definitely has a fighting chance against a drone).
While it’s hard to say exactly how many falconers have adopted drones circa late 2015, drones are a very popular topic of conversation on falconry message boards. A Facebook group devoted entirely to falconry training with drones has more than 800 members and almost daily postings. (Eight hundred may not seem like a huge number—but when was the last time you saw more than 800 falcon hobbyists in one place?) Falconers with an interest in drones regularly pop up on more general interest online drone groups. A number of falconry supply companies now offer customized drones to their clientele, and it’s international—falconry is a particularly popular pursuit in the United Arab Emirates, where these striking photographs that include a drone were shot.
Using a drone to condition and to train falcons is enough of a divergence from the norm, but raptor biologist Nick Fox of Wingbeat Ltd wants to go even further. Instead of training falcons to catch prey with training assists from drones, the U.K. native creates drones that the falcon can actually catch.
Falconry is a particularly popular hobby in the wealthy nations of the Middle East, but prey suitable for the hunt are lacking. The hefty Houbara bustard, the Persian Gulf’s most prestigious game bird, has seen its population crash in recent decades under the dual impacts of intensive hunting and increased development. “The end result is they haven’t got anything to hunt. The same is happening in many other countries, but the Arabs are better at it, and the desert is more fragile. So that means they’re bored out of their skulls,” says Fox.
Enter the Robara, a remote-controlled flying device that Fox and his associates designed to look and fly like the Houbara. Made from expanded polypropylene, the Robara has the mottled pattern of the bustard and movement that resembles flapping wings but is much more resilient, with parts that can be easily replaced when they’re broken. Capable of climbing to 1,650 feet in three minutes, the Robara, per Fox, has been designed to be powerful but not too powerful—fast enough to give the falcon a good workout but not so fast as to be impossible to catch at all. The Robara is not exactly a drone, either, as Dr. Fox stresses, because the pilot flies the Robara by eyesight, instead of relying on a live feed from a first-person view screen or a pre-programmed flight route.
That’s where the game comes in, and with the Robara, it is played between pilot and hawk. The hawk wants to nail the Robara, and the pilot is equally motivated to avoid the bird. In the most popular Robara vs. falcon game, the pilot scores a point for each meter the robotic bustard climbs in altitude, and a point for every second it stays, metaphorically, alive. Falconers want a low score, pilots a high one. “We’re always being asked to have more power, [told that] our pilots are no good, but they just have to get used to being killed until they get better,” says Fox. “[T]hey can get a second chance, but the animal doesn’t.”
The game between robotic bustard and hawk currently only really exists in the Middle East, but Fox is open to the idea of spreading the idea to the smaller markets in the U.K. and in North America.
More power to him. Falcon training with drones and training falcons to catch drones both present a challenge to the idea that technology and ancient, nature-linked practices are necessarily opposed to one another—and that technology always comes out ahead in the contest. Drones, instead of alienating us entirely from nature, have given us a way to directly compete against a bird that is faster than us and, in some ways, considerably more clever than us. In drones, the high-tech of robotics and the low-tech of working in concert with a wild and often unpredictable animal have, improbably, come together.
This article is part of a Future Tense series on the future of drones and is part of a larger project, supported by a grant from Omidyar Network and Humanity United, that includes a drone primer from New America. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.