Amazon is just starting to test delivery drones, but in a decade, some experts predict that there will be a million drone flights every day over U.S. soil. As the FAA finalizes its rules for commercial drones, there’s something missing from the debate: What do a million new flying aircraft mean for birds and other wildlife?
In a recent article in Science, researchers argue that the increasing use of drones–combined with other aerial obstacles like airplanes, buildings, power lines, and wind turbines–means that countries should probably start to set up wildlife preserves in the sky.
“We draw attention to the fact that collision rates are increasing and that new uses of the airspace such as drones, are also likely to cause conflict,” says Sergio Lambertucci, who co-authored the piece with other scientists from Argentina’s National University of Comahue and Swansea University in the U.K.
While airspace is protected over some areas, like national parks, in the U.S., it isn’t enough, the researchers say. “The problem is that those areas are mainly designed because of the species that are on the ground,” Lambertucci says. “Aerial reserves should focus on the needs of species in the airspace.”
Billions of birds, bats, and other flying animals migrate every year, mostly at heights that conflict with human uses of airspace. But though some of those migration paths are mapped out, scientists still don’t know that much about how they move in daily life.
“We still know very little about how animals move within the airspace over fine scales–if birds and bats left trails behind them would we see a network of faithfully used miniature flyways?” Lambertucci says. “We need to understand more about what determines the flight paths of these animals as they go about their daily lives, if we are to understand how to minimize our impact on them.”
Ultimately, as scientists better understand how wildlife travels in the air, planners can theoretically choose better locations for airports, wind farms, and other obstacles. Governments can begin to set up preserves, either temporarily along migration paths, or permanently to protect endangered species in vulnerable areas.
The idea of creating aerial preserves is new. “It was only as recently as 2013 that researchers proposed that the airspace be recognized as habitat,” he says. “Frameworks for protecting the animals that use this habitat lag far behind frameworks for the conservation of terrestrial and even aquatic habitats.”
Beyond preserves, better design can do much more to protect flying wildlife from crashing into the human world–from UV lights and stickers that warn birds about windows during the day, to wind turbines that can sense a flock of bats and automatically slow down.
“The good news is that there has been some fantastic research on reducing some types of conflict and there has been huge progress in places in implementing measures to reduce collisions–the state of New York, for example, has been in the news recently as it is joining tens of other cities in the U.S. in turning lights off when songbirds are migrating,” says Lambertucci.
And a few places, like Yosemite National Park, are getting an early start on banning drones.