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With over 250 missions completed, drones are important tool for EGLE as it protects the environment and public health

Heavy-life drone in the air with EGLE staffer at the controls(As part of National Drone Safety Awareness Week, MI Environment looks at EGLE's drone program.)

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) uses drones in a lot of its work. One of the drones got a lot of attention recently when a bald eagle attacked it as it was mapping shoreline erosion in the Upper Peninsula. It was later recovered from Lake Michigan by EGLE staff — missing one propeller!

EGLE has found that drones are a great way to see the bigger picture. Having a bird's eye view makes it possible to see what's impossible to see from the ground.

From high water issues, to conducting landfill cap vegetation surveys, to using infra-red technology to look for groundwater seeps, to evaluating brownfield remediation sites and more, drones have become an important tool for EGLE as it protects the environment and public health.

EGLE has 25 drones from four manufacturers, ranging from entry level field drones to heavy-lift models.

Some are aerial drones that have special high-end cameras for thermal, topographical imagery and can fly in winter with internally heated batteries.

The department has 15 staffers who are certified by the Federal Aviation Administration and have passed EGLE's proficiency evaluations. Another 15 are training to become pilots. All EGLE Divisions are represented in the program, with pilots around the state.

Pilots are trained in flying several different models, based on their specific application. They are also well-versed in privacy and security, as it related to state law and best management practices. The goal is to make sure that EGLE pilots are flying safely, legally, and ethically, taking our field work to new heights, says Art Ostaszewski, who coordinates EGLE's drone program.

Since the inception of the EGLE drone program in January 2017 over 250 missions have been conducted in support of projects.

There is more to operating drones than just getting off the ground and taking some pictures, notes Ostaszewski. "Pilots that have come through the EGLE program recognize that flying drones for EGLE is really taking an aerial reconnaissance technology approach to their field work."

Plans call for branching out into new uses of drones, including:

  • Putting detection meters on drones to measure radiation and air quality.
  • Evaluating drone water sampling components.
  • Using Remote Operated Vehicles -- RRD and MMD both have underwater robots, for example.

Future possible uses include using terrestrial models where aerial drones may not be suitable due to overhead obstructions such as high-tension wires, buildings blocking GPS signals, and populated areas.

"Drones are a tool that help EGLE gather information on sites that otherwise would not be available," says Ostaszewski.

"With the additional information gathered from drones, EGLE, facilities, and the public can come together to make better environmental decisions."

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