Monday, September 25, 2017

DEC’s Drone Program Includes A Fleet Of 22 UAVs

DEC Drone Video Still (2017)The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has announced that the agency has deployed a fleet of 22 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, across the state. An announcement from the state agency said the drones will “enhance the state’s environmental management, conservation and emergency response efforts.”

“DEC has a wide range of responsibilities in protecting the state’s environment and ensuring the safety of our citizens and visitors, and well-being of our communities,” DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said in the statement, which was sent to the press. “The use of drone technology will help us do our jobs better and faster while saving taxpayer dollars. We live in a changing world with technological advances being made at an exponential rate, and UAVs give us a safe and efficient way to collect and analyze data, assess threats to the environment, and quickly respond to emergencies. This technology is helping DEC with everything from petroleum spills and wildlife surveys to search and rescue missions, forest fires, and natural disasters.”

DEC says it developed its UAV program with guidance from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and received a Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the FAA authorizing use of UAVs within national airspace.

Fourteen DEC pilots trained under the guidance of the Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research (NUAIR) team, the agency said, at FAA’s UAS test site at Griffiss International Airport in Rome, with staff from SkyOp, a private UAS training company.

The drones are equipped with both standard and thermal infrared cameras and can legally fly at heights below 400 feet. Each drone is operated by a human pilot that can control the vehicle with a remote control from the ground and at a distances of up to three miles.

Currently, DEC stations drones in DEC Region 1 (Long Island), Region 2 (NYC Metro), Region 4 (Capital District), Region 5 (Adirondacks), Region 6 (Tug Hill), Region 7 (Central New York), and Region 9 (Western New York). DEC’s statement said the majority of the drones will be piloted by UAS-certified Forest Rangers and Environmental Conservation Officers (ECOs).

DEC anticipates using drones for a number of duties, including but not limited to search and rescue missions, forest fire suppression, wildlife management and surveys, invasive species detection, and forest health evaluations.‎  DEC also anticipates that drones will help staff to quickly assess environmental damage from natural disasters such as dam breaks, ice jams, flooding, hurricanes, tornados, and air quality events. Drones can also give scientists new opportunities to observe landscapes from above and provide baseline and change-comparisons over time for enhanced data analysis.

Each year, Forest Rangers respond to approximately 250 search and rescue calls, and many times environmental conditions, such as low visibility and night conditions, prevent manned aircraft from providing support. This lack of information often increases the time to respond to stranded and distressed persons in critical need of medical attention. To solve this problem, UAVs equipped with infrared sensors will have the ability to transmit real-time location information to ground search-and-rescue crews, potentially saving time and lives.

Additional uses of the drone program provided by DEC include:

Documenting rare and endangered species and habitats;
Radio signal tracking for wildlife;
Geological mapping related to ground water quality;
Mapping and documenting layouts of property boundaries, public facilities, state forests, parks, and campgrounds for better management practices;
Documenting illegal hazardous substance releases by assessing changes in the color spectrum of ground vegetation;
Sampling remote waterbodies;
Reconstructing accident scenes; and
Documenting marine resources for overlaying onto nautical charts with correct spatial orientation.

DEC is encouraging anyone flying a UAV to familiarize themselves and comply with FAA rules and regulations. DEC issued a ticket for drone usage in a wilderness area this summer.

DEC says it has jurisdiction over the public’s launching, landing, and operation of drones on DEC land. If you launch or land from private property and operate over DEC lands, the FAA has jurisdiction according to the DEC.

DEC is in the early stages of determining what kind of public drone use will or will not be allowed on most state land.  The allowable uses and the regulatory mechanism for such use will depend on the land designation.

DEC’s announcement said “Drone use will not be allowed on lands classified as wilderness in the Adirondack and Catskill parks and areas classified as primitive and canoe in the Adirondack Park.” Any proposed policies and regulations would be subject to a public comment period.

DEC has already used drones in a number of missions, and produced a video highlighting the program and released the following list of missions it’s recently conducted with drones throughout the state:

Spills Response – Staten Island, NYC

An oil spill in a wetland area on Staten Island was difficult to traverse on foot. A UAV was deployed to the scene and within minutes after launch, the pilot spotted the oil sheen on the water and mapped the extent of the spill. Responders were able to secure the site within a few hours, saving the State valuable resources.

Fire Island Beach Restoration Survey – Suffolk County, Long Island

Ocean dredging along Fire Island from Robert Moses State Park east to Seaview is part of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project to provide coastal storm damage risk reduction. Sand is used to rebuild dunes and beaches severely impacted by Hurricane Sandy. Images and video collected by DEC’s UAV documented completed work, which was used to assist in reconnaissance and preparation for the winter storm season. It is important to know the condition of the beaches and dunes prior to a storm to determine weak areas that may be vulnerable to damage. It is also useful to determine how much sand is lost in a storm and if the loss is severe enough to warrant emergency action or re-nourishment.

Southern Pine Beetle Survey – Suffolk County, Long Island

Southern pine beetle (SPB), an invasive forest pest, has damaged thousands of acres of pine trees on Long Island. To improve management efficiency, DEC utilized UAV natural color sensors to map tree damage from the air using automated search pattern software. UAS located hard-to-reach and previously unknown SPB-damaged pine trees in a few hours, rather than a few days, improving the survey and allowing for more effective management.

Phragmites Survey – St. Lawrence County

DEC recently acquired more than 200 acres of wetlands and upland habitats adjacent to Wilson Hill Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in St. Lawrence County. This area consists of beaver swamps, thick brush, and cattails, which make travel on foot and subsequent habitat assessments challenging. UAV aerial mapping, as opposed to mapping on foot, allows for more efficient and accurate measurements of location, size, and extent of stands of phragmites, an exotic invasive plant. Phragmites, or common reed, is well established in New York State, but is only recently becoming dominant in certain areas near the Wilson Hill WMA. Several acres of phragmites are targeted for control in 2017, with the ultimate goal of eradicating the plant in the WMA’s wetlands. DEC drones have helped staff ensure that all existing stands of phragmites have been identified and targeted for control, which will help prevent new infestations and loss of habitat.

Bat Cave Survey – Mineville

DEC suspects that New York is home to several large, underground bat hibernation sites, but has failed to locate entrances to these sites during ground-based searches. Knowledge of the location of entrances to hibernation sites helps DEC staff assess the status of bat populations. A DEC UAV was used to detect underground bat hibernation sites this past winter using thermal sensors. The drone was flown over the area of interest in a grid pattern. Hibernation sites emit relatively warm air when the outside temperature is lower than the internal temperature and, conversely, emit relatively cool air when the outside temperature is warmer. The UAV’s thermal sensor was able to detect the location of previously unknown hibernation areas.

Monitoring Traffic at the Great New York State Fair – Syracuse

DEC assisted DOT at the New York State Fair using state-of-the-art drone technology. Drone video was streamed live to the DOT traffic management center to help manage and alleviate traffic congestion not visible by traditional pole cameras.

Lake Ontario Coastal Erosion Survey

DEC drones mapped a two-mile stretch of eroded coastline on Lake Ontario, allowing engineers to assess the damage and confirm that property along the dune system was safe from catastrophic failure. The drone flight was conducted in a couple of hours and saved DEC weeks of on-the-ground surveys.

DEC Deploys UASs to Texas and Puerto Rico

DEC deployed two drones to Texas to help aid in Hurricane Harvey disaster response. The drones were used as part of the search-and-rescue effort to locate persons, significantly reducing the hazard for responders and improving response time. In addition, Governor Cuomo dispatched three drones and two DEC operators to Puerto Rico to assist the New York Power Authority in restoring the power Grid and other emergency response missions.


Photo: DEC Drone Video Still (2017).

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14 Responses


    Does this mean that drones will not be used in the High Peaks for rescue missions but helicopters are allowed?

  2. Paul says:

    Drones would be a huge help in search and rescue. They should be used for that ASAP if they are not already. Think of how much “ground” a ranger can cover as soon as they know a hiker is missing. I saw a helicopter flying over head yesterday at low altitutye maybe looking for someone or something. They are at an altitude where they really can’t see the kind of detail you can with a drone right over the trees. Much cheaper. And much less danger for the “pilot”.

  3. scottvanlaer says:

    We have already started using them.

    • Paul says:

      That’s great. Not a huge drone fan in general but when they can be a legitimate tool to help somebody get thier job done I think its a good use.

    • Boreas says:


      Being found by a drone could still mean several hours before human aid arrives. Just curious – are your drones big enough to lift & drop small amounts of emergency gear – Mylar blanket, energy bar, signal light, etc.? I know in some areas Amazon can deliver to your door! Just wondering.

      Also, the article mentions it may often be safer to search with a drone in bad weather that would ground a normal helicopter. But I would think small, light craft would be harder to fly in wind/rain/fog. Is this true, or am I misunderstanding the flight characteristics of these craft?

      • Paul says:

        I think wind could be an issue but rain and fog probably not much of a problem. I have seen a drone thrown into the water, it comes right back out flying. Some are totally waterproof.

        I think fog is a good example of where they could be especially useful. Doesn’t take much of that to grond a helicopter. It’s pretty much foogy every morning in the mountains!

        The cool part is one guys eyes (safe on the ground) can serveil a huge area and do it right above the trees. A lot of times these things can just crash (quite violently) and then just take right off again.

        • Boreas says:

          But there is much less (narrower) visibility with a drone. You are limited by the camera. When searching, you would be flying by camera – with limited peripheral cues. How do rain/fog interfere with a camera lens? Dunno…

          • Paul says:

            Sure this is not a replacment for other ways of searching just a great new additional tool. Was just noting how tough and versitile these things are. I think that some of the cameras they have on these have pretty phenomenal ranges of visibility. Since they hang below the drone they have a 360 degree unobstructed view (if they are not fogged up!).

      • scottvanlaer says:

        I am not a drone pilot so I don’t know the answers to all your questions. There are major limitations with wind speed.

  4. Tom Baket says:

    One drone, 6 million acres. Three mile range. Good luck.

  5. adkDreamer says:

    Great idea! Caution ahead: This may be a stepping stone for state government surveillance. Just saying…

  6. mike blades says:

    What kind of drones?

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