Airborne drones are once again delivering coffee and fast food to a north Canberra suburb after a pair of ravens grounded the robots.
- Drone deliveries in Canberra’s north were suspended after nesting ravens began attacking the machines
- A bird expert hired by the delivery business says it is safe for the service to resume
- A different ornithologist says airborne drones and birdlife are incompatible, and deaths and injuries are inevitable
Wing, a business owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, suspended its services to about 30 hectares of the suburb of Harrison in September while it investigated why the birds were attacking its machines.
The ravens had been filmed swooping towards and pecking the drones mid-air as they flew near the birds’ nest.
Local ornithologist Neil Hermes, who was commissioned to study the ravens, isolated the attacks to a single pair and observed them over two months.
He said the behaviour of the birds, which had three chicks nesting in a tree near a Wing customer, was entirely normal.
“They were approaching the drones from behind, like they would if it were a wedge-tailed eagle or another predator, and trying to grab it from the back — the tail of the bird — and trying to just encourage it to leave,” Mr Hermes said.
Canberra was the first city in the world in which Wing trialled its service, which uses automated drones to deliver burritos, burgers, curries, hot drinks, medicine, hardware and office supplies to households.
The service remains a trial but thousands of Canberrans use it each day, and Wing is slowly expanding the region in which it operates.
Mr Hermes said the company ceased operating in the ravens’ territory on his advice but recommenced deliveries this month, well after the chicks had fledged.
“There seemed to be no risk to the birds or the drones, and I wouldn’t expect any repeat of the attacks … at this time,” he said.
However, he acknowledged that ravens, like magpies, were naturally aggressive defenders of their young and next spring might bring similar challenges.
A Wing spokeswoman said the company had not received reports of attacks elsewhere.
“We are committed to being strong stewards of the environment, and we have, and continue to take, advice from ornithological experts to inform our operations,” she said.
‘It will harm birds’: Plea to keep skies drone-free
Demand for Wing deliveries increased sixfold during the pandemic in 2020 as customers complied with COVID-19 lockdowns and other restrictions.
Nonetheless, the service is far from universally popular.
The company abandoned its first trial in the southern Canberra suburb of Bonython after residents expressed concerns about privacy, the machines’ noise and the distress they caused to wildlife.
Wing altered its drones’ design to make them quieter and relaunched the service in the northern district of Gungahlin, where it has been more successful.
However, Gisela Kaplan, an emeritus professor in animal behaviour at the University of New England, said widespread use of drones was simply incompatible with healthy birdlife.
“We’re taking away their habitat at a massive rate,” she said.
Dr Kaplan said flight spaces were organised among birds, which knew where and at what heights they could fly safely without creating anxiety for themselves or other birds.
Drones were “taking away the last stress-free environment”, she said.
“And it will result in harm to birds, death to birds, it can reduce breeding efforts and it can injure birds.”
However, Mr Hermes said the matter of animals’ rights, and the degree to which humans impinged on them, was far broader than Wing’s operations.
“It’s an interesting time: new technologies are emerging and we have an opportunity to get more cars off the road,” he said, noting that road vehicles kill many birds.
“We certainly need to be careful to ensure that we’re aware of the impacts [of what we’re doing].”