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State’s environmental agency deploys drones to boost emergency response

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Basil Seggos announced that the agency has deployed a fleet of 22 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or “drones,” across the state to enhance the state’s environmental management, conservation and emergency response efforts.

Recently completed missions have greatly improved DEC’s ability to monitor and protect the state’s lands, waters, and wildlife while ensuring environmental quality and safety for residents.

“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,” Commissioner Seggos said. “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 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 for several months under the guidance of the Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research (NUAIR) team at FAA’s UAS test site at Griffiss International Airport in Rome, one of only six national test sites in the nation, and 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). The majority of DEC’s 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 has already used drones in a number of successful missions across the state;

  • 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.
  • 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 (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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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 will also give scientists new opportunities to observe landscapes from above and provide baseline and change-comparisons over time for enhanced data analysis.

DEC 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.

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. 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.

DEC’s proposed policies and regulations will be subject to a public comment period in the coming months.

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