For hundreds of years in the skies over Asia, people have used eagles to hunt down prey with deadly results.
That tradition has been in decline for decades, but now the bird's keen eyesight, powerful talons and lethal hunting instincts are being used to take out a new kind of 21st-century vermin: drones.
The animal-vs.-machine moment is brought to you by Guard From Above, which describes itself as "the world’s first company specialized in training birds of prey to intercept hostile drones."
The Hague-based company's latest customers are Dutch police, who have been looking for ways to disable illegally operating drones. A police spokesman told Dutch News.nl that the effort remains in a testing phase, but he called the use of birds to combat drones a "very real possibility."
"It's a low-tech solution to a high-tech problem," national police spokesman Dennis Janus told Reuters.
He added: "People sometimes think it's a hoax, but it's proving very effective so far."
The rise of drone technology has been matched in speed by the rise of anti-drone technology, with companies creating radio jammers and "net-wielding interceptor" drones to disable quadcopters, according to the Verge.
“For years, the government has been looking for ways to counter the undesirable use of drones," Guard From Above's founder and chief executive, Sjoerd Hoogendoorn, said in a statement. “Sometimes a low-tech solution for a high-tech problem is more obvious than it seems. This is the case with our specially trained birds of prey. By using these birds’ animal instincts, we can offer an effective solution to a new threat.”
A video released on Sunday by Dutch police shows an eagle swooping in at high speed to pluck a DJI Phantom out of the air using its talons. The drone is immediately disabled as the bird carries it off.
"The bird sees the drone as prey and takes it to a safe place, a place where there are no other birds or people," project spokesman Marc Wiebes told Dutch News.nl. "That is what we are making use of in this project."
Said Hoogendoorn, according to Reuters: "These birds are used to meeting resistance from animals they hunt in the wild, and they don't seem to have much trouble with the drones."
Janus, the police spokesman, told the Associated Press that the birds get a reward if they snag a drone.
Eagles' talons, as the New York Daily News points out, are known for their powerful grips; it's unknown whether they could be damaged by a drone's carbon-fiber propellers.
HawkQuest, a Colorado nonprofit that educates the public about birds of prey, says eagles have enough power to "crush large mammal bones" in animals such as sloths.
"Scientists have tried to measure the gripping strength of eagles," HawQuest notes. "A Bald Eagle’s grip is believed to be about 10 times stronger than the grip of an adult human hand and can exert upwards of 400 psi or pounds per square inch."
According to a study cited by Wired in 2009, raptor talons are not merely powerful, but also finely tuned hunting instruments:
"...accipitrids, which include hawks and eagles, have two giant talons on their first and second toes. These give them a secure grip on struggling game that they like to eat alive, 'so long as it does not protest too vigorously. In this prolonged and bloody scenario, prey eventually succumb to massive blood loss or organ failure, incurred during dismemberment.'”
A handler in the video, the Daily News notes, claims the birds are adequately protected by scales on their feet and legs, but researchers hope to equip the animals with another layer of defense.
The potential impact on the animals' welfare is the subject of testing by an external scientific research institute.
"The real problem we have is that they destroy a lot of drones," Hoogendoorn said, according to Reuters. "It's a major cost of testing."
The decision about whether to use the eagles is still several months away.
This post has been updated.