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In flight over Lake Michigan, it was eagle vs. drone. Guess who won?

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

In a battle of eagle vs. EGLE last month, Mother Nature won — and a $950 drone wound up swimming with the fishes.

According to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), drone pilot Hunter King was flying a Phantom Pro 4 Advanced model over Lake Michigan on July 21 when it ran afoul of a fowl.

An American Bald Eagle

King, an environmental quality analyst for the agency, was mapping shoreline erosion about 150 feet from the beach near Escanaba. He said he was seven minutes into his fourth flight of the day when satellite reception grew spotty.

The sortie was designed to help EGLE help communities cope with high water levels, EGLE said. King scrubbed the mission, pressing the “Go Home” recall button.

The drone obediently turned and zeroed in on a strong satellite feed.

Meantime, something was zeroing in on the drone.

As King related on EGLE’s website, the drone suddenly began spinning. “It was like a really bad roller coaster ride,” he said.

When he looked up from his video screen, the drone had vanished, and a likely suspect was racing away: a bald eagle. A nearby pair of strolling eagle aficionados confirmed that they had seen the bird attack an inanimate object, to their surprise and most likely the bird’s.

King and the couple spent several hours searching the shoreline, but failed to spot the drone. Several days later, EGLE Unmanned Aircraft Systems coordinator Arthur Ostaszewski took a crack it, having used telemetric data from the flight to pinpoint the point of entry in to the deep blue sea.

Well, it wasn’t that deep — only 4 feet. But visibility was nil in water darkened by tannin, according to EGLE, so he set his snorkel aside and spent two hours walking a grid.

Across and back, he had no luck in the muck. Like so many shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, the drone remained lost.

At least the cause is known. Perhaps mistaking the drone for a seagull, the eagle tore away a propeller, instantly dropping the drone’s speed from 22 mph to 10 mph and, well, dropping the drone.

EGLE said it is considering steps to avoid similar attacks, including using designs on drones to make them look less like dinner.

On the plus side, EGLE said, the eagle-vs.-EGLE skirmish was a reminder of the resurgence of the majestic bird in Michigan.There are now an estimated 2,500 bald eagles in the state including close to 900 breeding pairs, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey.

And, in a final statistical note: Michigan has one less drone.

nrubin@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn