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 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).