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  • Drones for monitoring or studying birds? Maybe not...

    Ellen Paul
    • Author: Ornithological Council

      The FAA has proposed new regulations on the use of drones. Will you be able to use drones to study birds in the United States? Maybe not...

    This news and analysis are provided by the Ornithological Council, a consortium supported by 12 ornithological societies. Join or renew your membership in your ornithological society if you value the services these societies provide to you, including Ornithology Exchange and the Ornithological Council!



    The Federal Aviation Administration has proposed rules for the use of drones. The proposed rule was published on 2/23 and the comment period closes on 4/24.




    There will be a public comment period of at least 60 days. It is almost sure to be extended at least once. It can and usually does takes months and even years from the time the comment period closes to the time the final rule is announced and goes into effect. Especially one that involves public safety.


    Say, however, the FAA issues regulations that allow the use of drones in U.S. airspace. Will you be allowed to use them to monitor or study birds in the United States? Maybe not. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reportedly takes the position that the Airborne Hunting Act prohibits the use of model aircraft (technically known as small unmanned air vehicles or small unmanned aircraft systems) for monitoring wildlife or doing research on wildlife. It is their position that the only exemptions are for depredation and management activities.


    The Airborne Hunting Act applies to "any contrivance used for flight in the air" and prohibits "harassment" which is defined as "disturb, worry, molest, rally, concentrate, harry, chase, drive, herd, or torment."


    Do drones disturb birds? Little research has been done, but from France, seabird ecologist David Gremillet reports that a flock of flamingos seemed to ignore a drone that came as close as 13 feet over their heads. "What did affect the birds, the team discovered, was the angle at which the drone swooped into the swamp or zoo. The quadrocopter had little problem getting close to the birds when it traveled at angles of 20 degrees, 30 degrees, and 60 degrees. But when it descended vertically at a 90-degree angle, it spooked the birds, causing many to fly or move away."


    The study was published in Biology Letters on 4 February 2015. It was also reported in The Atlantic, with video.


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