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Competition For Airspace Intensifies In Unalaska

Jul 26, 2017

A bald eagle takes off near Unalaska Bay.
Credit Berett Wilber/KUCB

Before sending a $6,000 drone to record aerial footage in Unalaska, Emmett Fitch warned the pilot he might want to reconsider one thing.  

“It was black with a white body,” Fitch recalls. “I said, ‘That looks a lot like an eagle. We should maybe paint it a different color.’”

Fitch, who runs local Wi-Fi provider Optimera, was helping an advertising agency shoot promotional footage. The Robertson & Partners team flew up from Las Vegas to film on a bluebird day.

But things didn’t go as planned.  

“All of a sudden they just lost communication with the drone,” Fitch said. “[The pilot was trying to] figure out what’s going on, frantically hitting the button that says return home, return home.”

The drone did not return.

The team was worried. The pilot wanted to prove he wasn’t at fault, so the drone’s insurance coverage would kick in. But none of them were exactly sure what happened.

“So he was able to go back and look at the footage in slow motion, right toward the end,” Fitch said. “And it just —  you can see it: the yellow part of the eagle talon. And then — it’s gone.”

Fitch says they couldn’t believe it. Their footage was gone and their plans were ruined.

After it happened, it was kind of like we all lost a member of the team,” he said.

While eagle-drone interactions are unusual, they are not unheard of. Police in France and the Netherlands have trained the raptors to snatch drones from the sky. Unalaska gets that service for free. This time, it’s paying local dues. With the machine out of commission, a local drone pilot says the company turned to him for footage instead.  

As for the future of drones in Unalaska? Fitch feels there’s a clear solution.

“They should be made to look different than birds of prey,” he said.