January 18, 2022

An Endangered Baby Vulture and Its Unlikely Savior

A vulture that lost its mom. A versatile drone developed by Technion alumni. And an unusual search and rescue mission. These elements came together recently in a touching story that resonated across Israel.

The saga began in February, when Israeli conservationists were thrilled to find a baby griffon vulture born on a cliff ledge in the Judean desert. Once, hundreds of pairs of the monogamous bird flew over Israel, but today, fewer than 60 pairs remain.

The Israeli Parks Authority teamed up with the Society for the Protection of Nature to create the Israel Raptor Nest Cam project, which monitored the vulture family: Mom, tagged K74; Dad, named T49, and baby. All was going well until June, when K74 tragically flew into a power line and was electrocuted. Suddenly Dad was on his own.

The conservationists moved into high gear, considering various solutions. Rather than capturing the endangered chick, they decided to drop food down to the baby until it was old enough to fly and continue living in the wild. But its home on the ledge was difficult to reach by standard commercial drones. That’s when the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) stepped in.

The army had been using an extremely versatile drone created by Xtend, a company co-founded by Technion alumni Aviv Shapira ’03 and Adir Tubi ’00. Xtend uses virtual reality that allows operators to see what the drone sees in 3D. A special combat engineering unit of the IDF then built a mock-up of the ledge and practiced for hours maneuvering in the tight space they would have to reach the chick.

“Mother Drone,” the moniker given by the IDF, succeeded in dropping carrion to the chick without scaring away Dad T49. Mother Drone drone kept up the food delivery every two to three days for a month, until the end of July, when the little vulture was old enough to fly and hunt for food on his own.

The drone is typically used for various military purposes and classified top secret. When asked by Israel TV about its unexpected use for wildlife preservation, CEO Aviv Shapira, who earned his Technion degree in aeronautics, replied: “When you open a company, you build something for a certain market. You don’t think about all the possibilities you might find.”