Drone technology can be a great help to environmental, engineering, and survey work—but there are improper, illegal, and unsafe uses
In recent years, there’s been a lot of excitement around the emergence of drones for commercial use. As an environmental scientist and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certified remote pilot, I think there can be incredible value in developing commercial small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS)—or drones—to provide environmental, engineering, and survey services. However, there is significant potential for risk and liability when using drones for commercial uses. Frequently, I’m seeing blogs, white papers, and advertisements from companies that have acquired sUAS technology and are announcing and displaying their capabilities in this marketplace. So, what’s the problem?
While some of these marketing solicitations appear to describe legitimate drone operations based on well-planned, legal, and, most importantly, safe sUAS operation, there are ads that provide media samples that clearly show improper, illegal, or unsafe use of drone technology. Examples of some of the misuses I’ve seen include drone footage showing overflights of active roadways or flying directly over people, animals, or structures with no concern for safety or even the legality. Other examples appear to show no concern for wildlife (including endangered or threatened species), which is particularly unsettling to me.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of online videos and photos that feature ospreys or other raptors defending their nests against low-flying drones. This is dangerous as these birds could easily be injured or even killed by the spinning propellers of multi-rotor type sUAS. Also, these birds could be driven from their nests—potentially impacting the survival of unhatched eggs or their flightless young. Recently, I saw drone footage, published by one of my environmental professional peers, that clearly shows the aircraft flying close to an apparently active bald eagle’s nest. As environmental practitioners, we should give more attention to the potential impacts of sUAS operations before flying.
How do we do this? Here are some questions to ask a prospective company before hiring them to fly your project:
- Is the drone being used for a project in which photo/video data could be collected by other means?
- Does the pilot have an FAA Part 107 commercial certification and have actual flight time experience?
- Is the pilot or company commercially insured for drone operations?
- Is a Part 107 waiver needed to conduct the proposed flight operations, and has the FAA approved the waiver application?
- Will the flight operations occur over people, roadways (active), or structures that are not part of the flight operation?
- What are the risks and liabilities associated with the operation?
- Have the flight operations been adequately planned to minimize risk and mitigate, to the greatest practicable extent, all potential safety concerns?
- Are there any potential threats to wildlife?
Drone footage of a construction site.
There is no doubt that sUAS are—and will continue to be—effective tools in many industries. Before using this technology or hiring a firm to use it for a project, there should be more consideration given to the appropriateness, legality (under FAA Part 107 or waivered operations), and—most importantly—the safety of the operation (including impacts to wildlife). As drone operators and stewards of the environment, we need to keep these considerations in the forefront of our minds.
If you have any questions about how to operate a drone safely, please reach out to me and I’d be happy to help guide you in the right direction.
About the Author
Ray Dennis is an environmental professional passionate about natural resource ecology, regulatory policy, and habitat restoration with a focus on helping clients obtain federal, state, and local regulatory agency approval. In addition, Ray is a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Certified Remote Pilot and is part of Stantec’s commercial small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) or drone program.More Content by Raymond Dennis