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Drones Are Teaching Falcons How to Hunt

One of the newest training techniques used by falconers could eventually help conservation efforts to save the birds’ prey

Raptors used in falconry like this peregrine falcon may soon be squaring off with robotic birds. (W. Perry Conway/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Drones are finding their place everwhere these days—including in the ancient sport of falconry. As New Scientist’s Aviva Rutkin reports, falconers are now turning to specialized drones to help train their birds on techniques for chasing and catching prey.

A U.K.-based company called WingBeat is helping to pioneer efforts in what they call "rofalconry"—“the art of falconry using robotic prey instead of live prey.” They’ve created the Robera, a drone designed to look and act just like one of falconers’ favorite prey birds, the houbara bustard. The robot can be controlled from the ground and is made to take a bird beating as human falcon owners use them to strengthen their animals’ flying and hunting techniques. Rutkin explains:

Falconers train their birds to reach high altitudes, so that they can see across larger areas and are more likely to find prey. Traditionally, they have done this by rewarding the falcon whenever they happen to fly high. Some trainers tempt the birds upwards with bait attached to a kite or balloon. But drones offer more control over this process – they can make the bait fly where the trainer wants or hover, even in a stiff breeze.

The Robera, with flapping wings and lycra skin intended to give falcons the feel of the real thing, is reportedly set to go on sale through WingBeat this fall in the Middle East.

If a bird chasing a robot around the skies sounds a little strange to you, you aren’t alone. According to Rutkin, there are falconry purists who say that if their raptor isn’t hunting wild game, it just isn’t real falconry.

But WingBeat says that drones offer a bunch of benefits to the modern falconer, including eliminating the need for huge hunting grounds to allow birds to practice and opening up possibilities for “rofalcony competitions” where “everyone can have fun flying their falcons together at the same venue.”

And the robotic birds make sense to conservationists: when a falcon digs its talons into a Robera, there’s a chance one more houbara or other prey animal will live to fly another day. Due in large part to the sport of falconry, the houbara bustard is a threatened species and in some regions at risk of extinction.

Some countries, including India, have banned the killing of these birds, but numbers have continued to drop as illegal catch-and-trade efforts have ramped up. But Wingbeat says that its drones help to make falconry “a totally sustainable sport with great conservation benefits to species such as the Houbara.”

Want to see what a falcon vs. a drone looks like in the air? Check out Wingbeat’s video gallery.

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