In 1995, Governor of Michigan John Engler ushered in a new state department to oversee environmental issues. With an average annual budget of $500 million, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) has developed a reputation for being one of the most effective state environmental agencies in the United States. As stated on the agency’s website, EGLE’s “mission is to protect Michigan’s environment and public health by managing air, water, land, and energy resources.” In the spring of 2017, EGLE began using drones to enhance the capabilities of its many environmental departments.
EGLE has one of the most comprehensive state drone programs. Of the agency’s 10 departments, 8 of them have at least 1 full time Part 107 licensed drone pilot with at least 1 dedicated drone. In a departmental release titled Drone Technology in Environmental Assessment Frequently Asked Questions, EGLE states that they have “25 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Registered UAS Aircraft, ranging from the DJI Spark up to the DJI M600P, as well as Parrot, Yuneed, and Splashdrone models, 15 Certified Remote Pilots in Command (RPIC); with 13 more in training,” and have conducted more than 190 drone missions since the program’s inception.
EGLE uses its drones in a variety of capacities. This includes making basemaps for remediation and site assessments, observing remote locations like wetlands, site inspections for areas like landfills or dams, gathering environmental chemical data, taking before and after images of state works, and much more. The FAQ goes on to explain, “There are three primary benefits to using drone technology. The use of drones allows EGLE to (1) collect better data (2) in a safer and (3) more efficient manner. This is evident in a variety of cases including aerial observation of tire piles where the spatial data collected provides better volume determination and does not require EGLE staff to physically climb and measure the piles.”
EGLE’s drone program is coordinated by Art Ostaszewski and utilizes a wide range of drone technologies. Depending on mission needs, departments have access to drones by DJI, Parrott, Yuneec, and Splashdrone. These drones come equipped with HD cameras, thermal and radiation sensors, sample collection capabilities, and can be modified to accept additional payloads. Every time EGLE uses a drone, they have the mission pre-approved through the FAA to ensure all safety regulations are met. However, Mr. Ostaszewski points out that there has been one unanticipated issue his pilots have had to make adjustments for, eagles.
A national emblem since 1782, the bald eagle is a true conservation success story. On the brink of extinction at one point due to urbanization, bald eagle populations are now thriving. It is estimated that there are close to 800 nesting pairs of bald eagles in Michigan. And though the birds are not endangered, they are still a protected species. EGLE plans drone missions in respect of eagle nests when out in the field. The birds are rarely in danger from the drones, but as they are very territorial, they can attack and destroy drones conducting valuable environmental missions.
EGLE has taken several steps to prevent eagles from attacking their drones. The first step is to thoroughly assess an environment before sending up a drone. EGLE employees have become familiar with areas that eagles nest in, particularly those with water and an abundance of one of their favorite meals, seagulls. If a mission is needed in a possible nesting location, a pilot may choose to use a larger drone that is less likely to be confused as a seagull. Another tactic Mr. Ostaszewski’s pilots have begun to use is to paint large eyes on the drone, a technique that has been successful in warding off predator attacks. And finally, EGLE drone pilots have begun training in evasive maneuvers when an attack is likely to happen. But overall, Mr. Ostaszewski said that “Together we soar – as far away from eagles as feasible.”