Let us prevent. Let us evade. Let Us Drone.
I had owned my drone for less than a week. With three or four introductory flights under my belt, I felt that I was ready for my first ocean voyage. We were losing daylight, and I knew I had to act fast to capture the beautiful La Jolla, CA sunset. My wife stood by, just as nervous as I was about flying my new Phantom over water. Not fifteen seconds after I took off did I realize that it wasn't DJI's flight technology being reliable that I had to worry about, but the darn seagulls. I kid you not, I've never seen a bird want to maul something that bad. That first ocean flight lasted all of three or four minutes, all of which I spent making frantic stick adjustments, doing my best to make it into week two of owning a saltwater free Phantom. Although I didn't have the first clue about avoiding or evading seagulls, my new quadcopter returned unscathed, retrieved by shaky hands.
If you'd like a quick answer on what to do if you find yourself on a seagull's hit-list, here's my recommendation. Step 1: Put the drone in sport mode. Step 2: Ascend as fast as possible until you have a nice cushion between your drone and the seagull. Step 3: Fly towards you at that altitude and descend immediately when the drone is overhead. *Note: you may have to repeat step 2 multiple times if the angry bird is just that relentless.
Why do seagulls attack drones?
If you've been at the beach and happened to see a seagull, you likely saw a thousand more of its colonial members nearby. These colonies are very territorial, especially during nesting times, and they work as a team to chase off any uninvited guests. Unfortunately for you and I, these drones that we love to operate usually aren't on their dinner guest list, making the extermination of our flying machines a priority before they will sit down (err…soar) to eat. Although these birds work as a team to ward off any intruders, they aren't afraid to steal a fellow-gulls catch of food, or even eat the fellow-gulls eggs while they're out diligently scavenging for that catch of food. So even if they decide that your presence in their territory isn't a direct threat to the colony, don't be surprised if one approaches you in hopes that your drone is carrying something edible. These creatures are very aggressive and aren't intimidated by a whirling Phantom or Mavic.
How to prevent your drone from getting attacked
Along with the rise of consumer and professional drone use came the barrage of YouTube videos showing peoples beloved Mavic's and Phantom's getting attacked by a variety of birds. A quick Google search will display numerous forum posts from downdraught ex-drone pilots describing in great detail how their Mavic got taken out by a bird on that fateful day. In response to those sad posts you'll find many other pilots offering their condolences, and suggestions for how to avoid future bird attacks. During my research, I have yet to find an absolute cure-all for seagull attacks, but I've found many “home remedies” with varying degrees of experimentation and success. Here are some of the recommendations that have been found to have some validity:
- Fly above 100 feet. Seagulls can certainly fly above 100 feet, but they tend to cruise at lower altitudes when looking for their next meal.
- Bright colors on your drone (orange, yellow, etc.), and these may come in the form of skins or wraps you can purchase, or tape that you can get creative with. After putting a blueish-green wrap on my Phantom I noticed a decrease in interest from the gulls while flying at the beach. With that being said, I usually still get at least one “Type A” bird that gives me a hard time.
- Give it the ol' angry eyes attempt. Get a sticker or draw them on yourself, as some have scared a few white missiles away with fake eyes.
- Place a device in the area that emits high-frequency sound waves. I understand that this may not be practical if you're in a public place or covering a large area with your drone, but this may be an option and there are a few of these devices out there designed to do just that.
- Try turning off your drone's vision positioning system (VPS). Some have reported that the sound waves emitted by the ultrasonic sensors may lead the seagulls to believe that an outsider is in the area.
- Don't fly too far away if you know seagulls are in the area. There has been more than one occasion where I am flying over the ocean and although my drone is within line of sight I can't tell exactly how close the birds are to my aircraft.
- Fly when it's hot out. Yes, I realize that the last thing you want to do is organize your flying schedule around some pesky birds at the beach, but on hot summer days, you'll often see more of them in shade, rather than in flight.
What to do if you're under attack
So you either didn't try any of the tips mentioned above on seagull prevention, or you did and you still see one closing in on your prized Mavic as your heart begins to race. So what do you do? Panic! No, don't do that. The bad news is that the seagull(s) which has your exposed drone in its sights has a gazillion more flight hours than you do, so when it comes to aerial flight acrobatics he'll make a fool out of you nine times out of ten. The good news? The seagull isn't thinking “alright, time to clip this wannabe birds wings”…well I think…I hope not. They likely just want you the heck out of their territory. You do have one distinct advantage though; you can ascend a lot quicker than they can. The following are steps I've taken when being harassed by seagulls, and albeit very close, I've never fallen prey to one.
- Put the drone in sport mode. You're going to want speed over obstacle sensing during the events to follow.
- Ascend straight up, fast. Stop ascending when you have a comfortable cushion, maybe 100-200 feet.
- Make a beeline to your location while remaining at the altitude you ascended to. I've tried descending while making the beeline toward myself, but the seagulls often spotted my drone and resumed the chase.
- When the drone is directly overhead, descend as quickly as possible.
What if the seagulls just won't give up
The four steps listed above have worked about 95% of the time. On occasion, I'll get the seagull that seems to have a personal vendetta against me. During one flight, in particular, I almost flew my Phantom 4 Advanced into a brick wall at 40+ mph. I was capturing some beautiful shots at a place called Bird Rock in La Jolla, CA. There wasn't a sandy beach to fly from so I had to stand on rocks, with about a ten foot high retaining wall to separate me from some very expensive beach homes at my backside. Yes, I knew there were a lot of seagulls at Bird Rock, but I was fairly confident with my honed evasion skills. Well, this day was different and I had two gulls that were relentless and persistent. Every time I ascended they would make their slow looping climb while squawking away (probably using all kinds of vulgar bird language), and as soon as I'd attempt to fly toward myself they'd fly over and wouldn't let me descend. This went on for a few minutes and my battery was getting to the point where I needed to land. It was a gamble, but I didn't have any other ideas; I was going to fly quite a ways offshore and fly directly towards me right above the water. My thought was that the birds would have a hard time keeping up and when I got close enough to where I was standing they would finally be scared off. Did it work? Well, yes, but I was wrong about them not being able to keep up. While flying back at top speed I saw the seagulls literally right behind the drone, so slowing down wasn't an option. I ended up braking hard mere feet from the wall, with the birds still using their naughty language right above my head; leaving only when the drone was on the ground with my arms waving wildly and the naughty language now coming from me.
I by no means claim to be an expert in seagull evasion, and there doesn't yet seem to be a fix-all answer other than “don't fly where there are seagulls around”. If you're like me and you live on the coast, then you understand that finding a nice beach area to fly without seagulls around is nearly impossible. I'd love some feedback from any of you out there that have had encounters with seagulls or other birds and how you faired!