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Aerial drones used for underground investigations

Drone controlsIf you're looking for chemical contamination leaking from underground into a stream or lake, where would you look? Down, right? Not always. Sometimes you get better view when you look UP!

Most people would logically assume that Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) staff drill holes in the ground and sample soil or groundwater to find contamination. We do. But we've also found that drones are a great way to see the bigger picture.

Aerial drones are a new and evolving tool that help EGLE staff do their work on and under the ground more efficiently. A MI Environment story published in August last year described how we’re using drones to detect radiation. EGLE's environmental remediation staff are using drones too, for a bird’s eye view of contamination that is impossible to see from the ground.

The current "top of the line" drone being used by RRD in the Geological Services Section is a Matrice 210 with both regular camera; zoom camera (video and still photography) and infrared thermal video. The drone has seen considerable use since late spring. It has provided aerial support for the Houghton flooding in the Upper Peninsula (U.P.); assist staff in assessing flood damage to landfill caps and to help staff to locate groundwater springs discharging to surface water in lakes. These springs are prime locations to sample for potential PFAS presence. The infrared thermal camera senses temperature differences in what it is looking at. Surface waters in Michigan especially in summer can run 70+ degrees Fahrenheit. Groundwater discharging to surface waters runs about 50-55 degrees. This temperature difference can be "seen" by the thermal camera (hotter temps appear as yellow red-white, colder temps are blue) and the location can be mapped for follow-on investigation. Why is this important? If we know groundwater is contaminated, we can see how much of it is entering a lake or river.

Recently the drone and forward-looking infrared camera were used to find groundwater seeps into Lake Margarethe in Grayling. Upon sampling these locations, one such location indicated detectable PFAS levels in the water sample.

Since the inception of the EGLE drone program in January 2018 over 190 flights have been conducted for EGLE staff in support of projects. The future of drone usage and adoption into EGLE programs has a bright future. Look UP!

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