These Birds' Molting Patterns Might Change How Government Uses Drones

Robert L Kothenbeutel/

U.S. Fish and Wildlife is researching whether oil spill drones could harm wildlife.

Drones are a critical part of the federal government's response to oil spills, especially in Alaska where shipping disasters have left wildlife covered in contaminants for years after. 

The unmanned aerial vehicles can track the spread of hazardous chemicals and also observe the creatures living close to the spill without forcing human researchers to approach cold ocean water and ice. But drones can be obtrusive, especially to birds that might find the flying machines threatening, so researchers at the Interior Department are investigating the shapes, sizes, colors, noise-levels and flying altitudes of drones that are least likely to disrupt certain species of birds. 

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Specifically, Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service wants a contractor to provide drones for a week-long test observing waterfowl and their response to the unmanned vehicles. For example, the Spectacled and the Stellar's Eider sea ducks, both considered endangered, are common in nearshore parts of Western Alaska that are at increased risk of oil spills. It's too expensive to study these birds in their molting habitat off the shore, but Interior hopes to observe similar birds in accessible parts of inland Alaska during the pilot. 

The agency is most concerned about these birds when they've just molted. Waterfowl frequently have a "spectacular" molt, not long after breeding, in which their loss of feathers prevents them from flying properly. The difficulty flying makes them vulnerable to predators, and it's possible that they'll perceive drones differently during this time, according to the agency. 

Civilian and defense agencies spent about $31.3 billion on unmanned devices and the internet of things, a connected network of sensors and devices, in fiscal 2016, according to a report from data analytics firm Govini. Despite continued interest in aerial drones, spending on those devices has dipped about 4.3 percent to $3.5 billion; unmanned undersea vehicles spending grew more than any other drone segment: It jumped about 20 percent to $605.4 million that year.