Tech by VICE

Here's One Way to Guard a Deep Space Antenna: Falcons

Meet Nalla the Persuader, a female peregrine falcon helping keep other birds off the ESA's Deep Space 2 antenna.

by Emiko Jozuka
Oct 14 2015, 12:30pm

Adrian Rubio Botello poses with Nalla the Persuader, a female peregrine falcon. Image: ESA - CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

If you plonk a high-tech antenna in the middle of a nature reserve, your equipment is bound to attract nesting birds as well as avian poop. But since the mid-2000s, the European Space Agency has been deploying some pretty low-tech strategies against those threats: falcons.

"The antenna is like a five star hotel to the birds in the area. It's very high up and they feel protected and safe there," Antonio Rubio Botello, a falcon trainer who's bred them since 2000, told me over the phone. "But our falcons help scare these birds away from the antenna."

Since 2006, Botello has been working with the European Space Agency to protect the Deep Space 2 antenna at the Cebreros Satellite Tracking Station in Avila, a town in Central Spain, from incoming avian threats. He and his son Adrian visit the station twice every week in the evenings for a couple of hours, and let Nalla the Persuader and a bunch of other peregrine falcons patrol the premises.

The massive antenna is used to track satellites in deep space at a distance of over 200 kilometers. Lionel Hernandez, the station manager at Cebreros, told me that an influx of bird nests and feces would force the station staff to clean the antenna more often (incurring big costs), and would affect the antenna's signal reception and transmission.

The Deep Space 2 antenna is in a pretty rural location. Image: Lionel Hernandez

Thus far, no other high-tech options have been found to help ward birds away from their antenna. Hernandez said that though it wasn't known to work so well he'd heard of some airports deploying falcon simulation noises to scare birds away. I suggested drones, but Hernandez said first they'd have to find a drone company specializing in scaring birds away, and there was no guarantee that the birds would be scared of them.

For the foreseeable future the Cebreros Satellite Tracking station is set to depend on the services of Nalla and Co.

"We have one of the most modern stations in the world but we still need some Medieval systems to protect it because there's just no other efficient way," added Hernandez. "We really need something with falcon-like behaviour flying around our satellite."

Nalla the Persuader perches on her handler's hand. Image: Antonio Rubio Botello