The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) has recovered a drone sent to the bottom of Lake Michigan by an unhappy bald eagle in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
EGLE's Willful Eagle Trauma Team Engaged in Retrieval (WETTER) pulled the soggy hardware from the lakebed Tuesday afternoon at almost the exact GPS coordinates of its final, frantic, transmission. It was resting upside down in the muck and missing a propeller, but otherwise showed little evident damage from the encounter.
The drone had been documenting erosion to the Lake Michigan shoreline to help residents and communities better cope with high-water issues when it was taken down on July 21 south of Escanaba.
Equipped with an underwater camera and side-scan sonar unit, the WETTER team was surprised to find that the previously murky water had cleared due to shifting winds and currents. Two previous attempts in tannin-darkened waters met with no success; third time's a charm.
"We wish we had a story where we located it with the sonar and the camera and pulled it up," said Brian Eustice, a geologist with EGLE. "But it was just right there. We couldn't believe we found it so easily." Eustice was joined in the successful drone hunt by EGLE geological technicians Mike Priebe and Brian Lower.
The drone damage report and SD card with video was driven to Lansing Wednesday where EGLE technicians will see if the lengthy submarine stint ruined the video. Even if intact, there will be no footage of the eagle's assault. Because the drone was in "Return Home" mode, it was not recording at the time.
EGLE drone operators are exploring methods of keeping drones – and raptors – safer in the future. Possibilities include painting or applying "skins" that make the drones look less like seagulls, better procedures for identifying high-risk areas, and different procedures and technology for recovering downed units.
Reached Wednesday afternoon the eagle referred all requests for comment to a Lake Michigan burbot — also known as a "Lawyer Fish".
"While we appreciate EGLE assessing shoreline erosion in the Great Lakes and doing so will help in making better management decisions for both wildlife and the public, this should make clear that the laws of nature shall not be trifled with," said Lawyer Fish. "The disrespect shown by EGLE, first by demeaning eagles everywhere with its cutesy acronym — and now blatantly violating their airspace will no longer be tolerated."
EGLE Unmanned Aircraft Systems Coordinator Arthur Ostaszewski noted that the drone flight was approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) under the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC).
The FAA, contrary to Lawyer Fish's assertions, has jurisdiction over the disputed airspace, not the eagle. Nonetheless he conceded that eagles have historically ruled the skies and little would be gained by pursuing cost recovery or issuing violations.
"As a practical matter, it's best we not ruffle anymore feathers," said Ostaszewski. "As noted animal behaviorist Dr. Temple Grandin eloquently said, 'Nature is cruel, but we don't have to be. We owe them some respect.'"
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