A white drone with red stripes ascended from grassy wetlands in southern France. Equipped with a GoPro camera, it climbed 30 meters into the air before buzzing across a green lagoon speckled with pink. Dozens of flamingoes perched atop twig-thin legs bathed below, oblivious to the hovering observer homing in on them.
The flock's nonchalance shocked wildlife biologists who have worried about how drones might disturb birds. “I was amazed, I was absolutely amazed,” said seabird ecologist David Grémillet, who had watched the flamingos ignore the drone. “My hypothesis was that at such close range the birds would fly off, and in most cases they didn’t—that was really a big surprise.”
Grémillet and his research team from France’s National Center for Scientific Research in Montpellier teamed up with the quadrocopter manufacturer Cyleone to see how close unmanned aerial vehicles could get to different bird populations without ruffling their feathers. The results from the research could inform wildlife conservationists looking to create ethical guidelines for the use of drones with birds, according to Grémillet.
To track the flamingo encounter, Grémillet used a laser rangefinder that showed how close the quadrocopter, fittingly called a “Phantom,” could sneak up on the birds. As he observed the aerial vehicle fly from 100 meters to only 10 meters away from its target, Grémillet wondered whether the wild flamingos would disperse or continue nuzzling their feathers. But even as the drone hovered just four meters away—the equivalent of about 13 feet—the flock remained unfazed.