Story at a glance

  • “It was like a really bad rollercoaster ride,” said the drone pilot.
  • Data from the flight records showed the eagle strike occurred 162 feet above the water.
  • The lost drone will be replaced with a newer model.

In the wild, any day could be your last. 

A shoreline-mapping EGLE drone learned this lesson the hard way when a bald eagle attack tore off a propeller and sent it plummeting to its death in the depths of Lake Michigan — never to be seen again.

“It was like a really bad rollercoaster ride,” said Hunter King, the EGLE environmental quality analyst and drone pilot at the time, in a release from the agency.


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King was about seven minutes into his fourth mapping flight of the day when satellite reception became spotty. He called the drone home, but on its way back it began spinning. When he looked up, he saw an eagle flying away. Data from the flight records showed the eagle strike occurred less than a mile from King and 162 feet above the water. The drone was going 22 mph at the time, dropping down to 10 mph as it sent 27 warning notifications in less than four seconds after it was hit. The last one was at 34 feet above the water, as the drone fell at 30 feet per second. 

A couple nearby also saw the attack, but were unperturbed — they often watched local eagles attack seagulls and other smaller birds — until they learned it was a drone. Did the eagle think it was a bird, or did it have more sinister motives? It’s anyone’s guess.

"The attack could have been a territorial squabble with the electronic foe, or just a hungry eagle," the department said in the release, adding that it could have been personal. EGLE stands for Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, but America’s national bird could have taken offense at the misspelling.

Either way, EGLE was no competition for the bird of prey. Michigan has seen a resurgence of its bald eagle population and reported 800 nesting pairs of bald eagles to the Times Herald last September.

The $950 Phantom 4 Pro Advanced drone is no longer in production, but the department told NBC News it would be replaced with a newer model. With no way of holding the eagle liable for the damage, the state will have to eat the cost. 

"Unfortunately, there's nothing we can do," a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) told EGLE, adding that the agency has no mechanism or authority to issue corrective action notices to individual, nonhuman wildlife. "Nature is a cruel and unforgiving mistress."  


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Published on Aug 14, 2020