Drone missions help Utah’s Golden Eagles, Dugway wins conservation award

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This photo showing golden eagle parents with their baby was taken by a nearby remote camera. Remote cameras were placed at nesting locations to compare against the three observation methods that were evaluated during the two-year project. Dugway Proving Ground photo.

DUGWAY PROVING GROUND (Utah) – The area is shrouded in mystery, the target of conspiracy theories ranging from UFOs to top-secret weapons. The reality? Yes, they do test biological and chemical weapons and also apparently help save the golden eagles.

A photo taken by a small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) confirms a golden eagle nest on Dugway Proving Ground is active with a chick. Dugway Proving Ground photo.

Dugway has just been given a huge conservation award for its innovative idea to help one of the most magnificent birds in the country.

The base has won the 2020 Resource Conservation and Resiliency Project of the Year by the Department of Defense’s Environmental Security Technology Certification Program

Unmanned aircraft (UAS), drones are being used to help keep the birds alive by monitoring their nests.

A Gray Eagle unmanned aircraft system (UAS) was the military-grade UAS used in the two-year project at Dugway Proving Ground to observe golden eagle nests. The project compared three observation methods to determine which one offered the most benefits. Dugway Proving Ground stock photo.

Ron Delgado, RIAC Product & Operational Safety Lead, pointed out other long-term benefits. “The opportunity for RIAC to support this effort impacts all missions on Dugway. This project provides students being trained in unmanned aircraft systems the challenge of being given a grid coordinate and then identifying a difficult target. This will enhance UAS operator abilities to support difficult missions when deployed.”

This photo of a baby golden eagle was taken by a nearby remote camera. Remote cameras were placed at nesting locations to compare against the three observation methods that were evaluated during the two-year project. Dugway Proving Ground photo.

Dugway is home to multiple breeding pairs of Golden Eagles. The birds are protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle protection act and the Migratory Bird Treaty act.

Golden Eagles are found across Western North America. According to the DWR, the range is from Alaska to Northern Mexico. Eagles in the north fly south for winter, but most populations are year-round residents. The bird is quite common in Utah.

This photo showing a golden eagle feeding its baby was taken by a nearby remote camera. Remote cameras were placed at nesting locations to compare against the three observation methods that were evaluated during the two-year project. Dugway Proving Ground photo.

One of the bird couples’ unique things they do is hunt in tandem, especially if they live in the mountains. Nests get built on cliffs or large trees.

Golden Eagles are monogamous and will use the same nest in consecutive years, or some will alternate, kind of having a second home.

Even though the birds can fly 2.5 months after hatching, the parents watch over them for at least another month. The birds do not start breeding until they are 4 to 5 years old.

According to a press release sent out by the U.S Army, endangered birds can cause restrictions on testing and training activities, especially if they disturb the big raptor’s nests. Dugway needed a way to understand the location and status of the nests fully. They did not want to hurt breeding pairs or the new hatchlings.

Project leaders came up with three ways. 1. On the ground, human observers. 2. A military-grade drone (UAS). 3. A small drone platform (sUAS).

Pilots control a Gray Eagle unmanned aircraft system (UAS) during a project at Dugway Proving Ground to observe golden eagle nests. The project compared three observation methods to determine which one offered the most benefits: an on-the-ground observer, a small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) and the Gray Eagle, a military UAS. Dugway Proving Ground photo.

Researchers found the drones to be an incredible set of tools to quickly identify nests and take photographs to help determine the age of the eagles, which is important information on deciding if a mission can safely continue. Plus it helped train the drone pilots.

For two years the base has been using humans and drones working together to monitor the birds.

“Simply being able to monitor adults and more accurately determine where they are in the nest-to-hatch process allows military activities into additional locations that have traditionally been limited,” explained wildlife biologist, Robert Knight, Natural Resources Program Manager at DPG. “The results of this two-year hard-look will inform range managers and natural resource managers on the best way to leverage technology to reduce range restrictions while meeting eagle stewardship responsibilities and critical mission objectives.”

Project team members prepare to launch a small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) to observe golden eagle nests on Dugway Proving Ground. The nests were observed for two years using three platforms to determine the strengths and weaknesses of each method. Dugway Proving Ground photo.

The program was so effective that a full report and guidebook is being made available to other military range masters that will focus on the use of the sUAS (small drone systems).

The army says the project had both military and civilian sources helping. The team included the DPG Natural Resource Office, Select Engineering Services, HawkWatch International, Army Rapid Integration and Acceptance Center, and the Army Threat Systems Management Office.

A photo captured by a small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) shows that an eagle nest at Dugway Proving Ground is inactive. Researchers spent two years monitoring eagle nests using three observation methods to determine which method was most beneficial. Dugway Proving Ground Photo

Dugway has been given a huge challenge, its job one of the most dangerous in the military to be “responsible for testing and evaluating nearly all chemical and biological defense capabilities while conserving its natural resources. Dugway Proving Ground is demonstrating the two missions are compatible.”

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