Wing resumes Canberra operations

… flights had stopped due to a territorial disagreement with a pair of ravens

Wing – the drone services subsidiary of Alphabet – has resumed package delivery operations to a suburb north of Canberra in Australia – after finally coming to an understanding with a pair of ravens that had lodged a sustained protest against all Wing drones flying into airspace the birds believed was theirs.

Actually, it was not so much an understanding as it was a sort of surrender by the drone company – Wing did suspend their operations after all, to allow the birds to raise their children.

ABC in Australia report that it emerged that the birds were hostile to the drones invading ‘their’ airspace because they may have been scared that the steel and plastic invaders may harm their children.

So, in defence of their territory, they used all the beaks and talons they had at their disposal to fend off the enemy. The ravens were caught on film swooping towards and pecking the drones mid-air as they flew near the birds’ nest.

And they succeeded.

According to the ABC report, Wing 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 birds were defending their young in their nest, during that time when their defensive reactions are at their peak,” said Neil Hermes, the local ornithologist who was commissioned to study the ravens.

Neil had isolated the attacks to the single pair of parents and observed them over two months.

“It lasted about four or five weeks,”

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.”

Sadly, the ravens could not know that they were dealing with a new arrival in town, whose bird language skills were non-existent.

A bird expert said the raven was sending a message… The drone did not understand

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.

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.

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. “The one space the birds have had to themselves is the air … and now we’re invading that. Drones are taking away the last stress-free environment and it will result in harm to birds, death to birds, it can reduce breeding efforts and it can injure birds.”


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