Sun. Sep 27th, 2020

High-tech ‘mother drone’ saves life of endangered chick

When an endangered vulture chick looked likely to starve to death on a mountain ledge, a top-secret military drone flew in to save the day.

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In a heart-warming tale of how a high-tech instrument for death and destruction can instead become a force for caring and conservation, a top-secret Israeli army drone has been used to save the life of an endangered vulture chick.

The life-and-death drama played out in a harsh mountainous region of the Middle Eastern country, where conservationists were monitoring the progress of a young Griffon vulture chick and its parents.

Fewer than 180 birds left in wild

Given that the species is endangered and there are believed to be fewer than 180 left in the wild, each new birth is gleefully welcomed and carefully monitored.

However, one day the monitoring team noticed with concern that mum had gone missing and only dad was left to fend for the little one – apparently a near-impossible task for a lone Griffon vulture adult as the chick requires constant protection and frequent feeding, while at the same time the adult must also hunt for itself.

Sadly, it was determined that mum had died after flying into power lines.

Dilemma of how to save the chick

The conservationists then needed to make the call as to whether climbers should be sent to capture the bird on its rocky ledge and then bring it into captivity, where at least it would be fed and safe.

But a life of captivity for a wild animal is never the first choice of conservationists, and then someone had the bright idea of using a drone as a kind of airborne surrogate mum.

The Israeli army was contacted and a top-secret drone unit agreed to take on the challenge.

Drone operators practiced on a mock-up

First, though, a mock-up of the nesting site was built at a military bases. Operators then spent hours doing practice flights to prepare for the real thing.

One of the conservationists’ concerns was that the adult vulture may perceive the drone as a threat and attack it, or that the chick would be terrified by its arrival and fall off the ledge.

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A screen-grab from the video. The drone (centre) has been blurred by the Israeli military. The vulture chick is on the right.

Fortunately, none of these happened and the first mission proved a success.

‘Mother drone’ feeds her hungry youngster

Then, every few days ‘mother drone’, as she became known, returned to the nesting site with food. Dad seemed happy enough to have it there and junior happily tucked into the home-delivered meals.

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Soon the chick was strong enough to successfully take on its first solo flight – and it was smiles all round for the conservation team and the army’s drone experts.

Unfortunately, nothing is known about the drone and its bird-like manoeuvrability. The project is highly classified, and photos and video footage of the drone have been heavily censored. Even the officer commanding the unit was only interviewed with his back to the camera.

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