Personal drones: The latest data resource for Phase I ESAs?

It may sound crazy, but drones could soon be serving as a vital research tool for environmental consulting firms and relied upon as an information source similar to the historical sources that are currently utilized in Phase I environmental site assessments (ESAs).

DJI, one of the leading companies producing small, unmanned aerial systems, has just released the Phantom 2 Vision, a new camera-equipped drone. The quadcopter features a built-in camera that allows the operator to capture photo or video from heights up to 1,000 feet. The drone is controlled using a smartphone, is reportedly easy to fly, and touts a battery life of 25 minutes – which is an improvement from the previous model.

If the connection between the drone and smartphone is interrupted during flight, built-in GPS guides the drone back to specified coordinates. In the future, DJI plans to release a drone that is self-reliant, enabling the craft to fly directly to GPS coordinates entered by the user. If you are looking to get into aerial photography, you can buy the Phantom 2 Vision for $1,200 on the DJI website – which can be significantly more economical than hiring a private pilot.

These new camera-carrying drones portend improvements in aerial photography that could aid with environmental research, search and rescue missions, emergency response, and other applications. While the practical uses of personal drones are seemingly endless, environmental professionals may now have a new way of performing site reconnaissance in areas that are challenging to visit on foot or simply too dangerous due to releases of hazardous substances. In addition, many ESAs are performed on large tracts of land covering thousands of acres. Covering that much ground in a reasonable amount of time has traditionally required a vehicle or ATV. The Phantom 2 Vision enables users to capture not only photos but also video. The ability to capture aerial photography and video allows EPs not only to analyze information in greater detail, but this technology could also serve as a valuable information source for Phase I ESA reports.

According to the New York Times, before commercial drones take to the sky, “lawmakers and regulators need to deal with a host of unresolved privacy and safety concerns.” With the help of drones, certain jobs and tasks could become cheaper to accomplish, but this may come at the expense of privacy. For example, people can “monitor remote infrastructure like pipelines and power lines more cheaply and easily than when conventional means like helicopters are used. But drones can just as easily be used by law-enforcement agencies and big corporations to conduct unconstitutional monitoring of individuals or groups of people.”

Amanda Padilla
GIS Analyst – Aerials and Historical Mapping

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