Abu Dhabi falconers think drones are for the birds

training falcons with dronesFalcons have been trained for hunting and sport for thousands of years across the Middle East. Now falconers in the United Arab Emirates are turning to drone technology as a new tool to teach their birds to fly increasingly higher and hunt more efficiently. Can technology teach old birds new tricks?

Falcons hunt by scanning the ground below them using a cone-like field of vision; imagine a spotlight scanning the earth – the bird’s-eye-view is limited to what’s moving within that beam. The area within the cone expands when the bird soars higher above ground, but falcons don’t always fly high while scanning terrain, so falconers train them to fly higher, which increases the potential hunting area.

For centuries, falcon trainers have used kites and balloons. They tie a lure to a line, which is attached to the kite or balloon. The falcon chases the device as it flies upwards, then snatches the bait and returns it to its trainer for a reward. Over time, the bird learns to fly higher and hunt prey over a larger area. Replacing kites with small unmanned aerial vehicles, or quadcopters, puts a modern twist on an ancient technique.

The machines act as tiny helicopters, operated by remote control.  They can travel in pre-determined paths, further and higher than ground-tethered balloons and kites. Watch a video of drone training a falcon below. (The bird makes his appearance at around 0:40.)

A drone is also being used – today – to carry a falcon to the top of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. It will carry the bird inside a special cage to the top of the 2,722 feet high tower.  The cage will open, and Victor the falcon will soar free, filming his journey using a special camera strapped to his chest. Live images of the world-record-breaking flight (this is Dubai, after all) will be shown on an enormous screen set along the shore between the Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa.

Drones are deployed in many new ways, but our favorites remain those with environmental benefits, whether raising awareness to abominable practices of Big Food, helping to clear plastic from our oceans,  or replacing delivery vehicles that run on fossil fuels.



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