New prey for trained eagles: Drones

An eagle taking down a drone at Mont-de-Marsan airbase in France.
An eagle taking down a drone at Mont-de-Marsan airbase in France.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

MONT-DE-MARSAN, France • Faced with the risk of drones being used to snoop or carry out attacks on French soil, the air force is showing its claws.

At Mont-de-Marsan airbase in south-western France, fearsome golden eagles are being trained to take out unmanned aircraft in mid-flight. As a buzzing drone lifts into the air from a runway, a loud squawk fills the air and a beady-eyed eagle bears down at breakneck speed from a control tower. In about 20 seconds, the raptor has the drone between its talons, then pins it to the ground.

The drone is destroyed: Mission accomplished for D'Artagnan.

The valiant bird is one of four - along with Athos, Porthos and Aramis, all characters in French novelist Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers - put through their paces since mid-2016. Mont-de- Marsan, some 130km south of Bordeaux, is one of five airbases in France to boast a falconry. Usually, the birds of prey - generally falcons or northern goshawks - scare birds away from the runway to reduce the risk of aircraft accidents.

But with France on high alert after several terrorist attacks, their claws are into national security.

Police in the Netherlands were the first to come up with the idea of training raptors to intercept drones in 2015. Police spokesman Dennis Janus said none of the eagles were hurt in the tests: "But as for the drones, none of them survived."

The eagles are used whenever drones are believed to be a danger to the public, such as during state visits or if remote-controlled craft are flying too close to airports.

The French army followed suit last year, choosing the golden eagle - a natural-born killer with a hooked beak and a wingspan of up to 2.2m . It weighs about the same as most drones and is devastatingly fast, clocking 80kmh when swooping in for the kill.

To prevent the birds from harming themselves on the job, the military is designing mittens of leather and Kevlar, an anti-blast material, to protect their talons.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 21, 2017, with the headline 'New prey for trained eagles: Drones'. Print Edition | Subscribe