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ECOS Releases Report on States Use of Drones for Environmental Results

In recent years, a number of states have established the use of drones within various environmental programs to boost emergency preparedness and response, water monitoring (harmful algal blooms, E. coli, Cyanobacteria, bathymetric, & per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), mapping, mining, watershed and groundwater inspections, dam inspections, volume and construction estimation, drinking water and coastline inspections, and more. The most commonly reported use of drones is for emergency response, which was cited by 12 states, followed by the use of drones for water monitoring, mapping, and mining, which was noted by eight states.

ECOS published a report detailing state environmental agency use of drones to enhance their programs. State Environmental Agency Modernization — Leveraging Unmanned Aerial Systems to Improve Environmental Results presents case studies from 19 states — Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Each case study encompasses a brief summary of the program, current and planned activities, application highlights, lessons learned, program contact information, and useful resources. There are many resources and links included in the report including sample policies, RFPs, drone specifications, pre-flight checklists, and other background documents that may be useful for those considering or expanding drone programs.

States report numerous benefits of using the technology. A few examples:

  • North Carolina notes that with its Estuarine Benthic Habitat Mapping program, a two-person team using a DJI Phantom 4 Pro drone can produce data for 600 acres per day compared to traditional methods of 10 acres per day, yielding significant cost savings.
  • Kentucky reports that it used an unmanned surface catamaran, or drone boat, to perform its first bathymetric pilot study, and has gone on to conduct similar evaluations. The state employed an aerial drone to map the ridgeline and the elevation of the water surface, and the drone boat equipped with an echo sounder measured the depth of the reservoir and mapped underwater features. Such information provides a more accurate picture of available water supply.
  • Michigan explains that in the past, it took three to five inspectors climbing several tire piles to manually measure the volume. Now, scrap tire program staff routinely fly drones to generate maps of tires on sites throughout the state, allowing the agency to estimate volume without having to climb piles. Tire piles are not always perfectly shaped, also complicating volume calculations, but drones provide 3D imagery and significantly improve volume determination.
  • Oklahoma says it has used drones to identify several finished water storage facilities with open hatches and/or damaged or missing vents and screens. These deficiencies, which posed a potential pathway for contaminants to enter finished water, would have gone uncorrected as they were not observable from the ground.

As a reminder, E-Enterprise sponsored a successful recorded webinar in December on state, tribal, and EPA use of drones. As part of the webinar, EPA shared information on its December 2020 drone policy that may also be of interest.

More information on state, tribal, and EPA drone efforts is also available at www.eecip.net. If you have questions or comments on the ECOS report, please contact Paulina Lopez-Santos or Beth Graves of ECOS.