Drones will transform what DEC can do

From searches to surveys, agency says technology will improve efforts, save millions

A flooded area of southeast Texas is seen from a drone piloted by New York state Forest Ranger Bruce Lomnitzer of Indian Lake during his work last month assisting people and locations damaged by Hurricane Harvey. The state Department of Environmental Conservation has also deployed rangers and drones to help with efforts in Puerto Rico after it was ravaged by Hurricane Maria. (Photo provided by DEC)

KEENE — Six years after Tropical Storm Irene stalled above the Adirondack High Peaks region and deluged the area with rain — to the point where numerous bridges buckled and communities flooded — the potential of another devastating flooding event of this magnitude is on the minds of many Adirondackers.

If that occurs, Forest Ranger Bruce Lomnitzer of Indian Lake says the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s newly launched drone program — and the advances in cameras and other technology attached to the drones — will help disaster-related efforts across the state.

“One hundred percent,” Lomnitzer said.

“Say in Keene Valley,” he added, “[we can determine] how much gravel was actually removed from the road [in a flood]. These programs can do volumes, measurements — how long did it take for that section of road to get blown out? It’s there. We can measure that stuff. It’s overly impressive.”

DEC launched the drone program in recent months. For a ranger like Lomnitzer, its uses include not only assessing the damage to infrastructure but also aiding search-and-rescue efforts in places, situations and conditions where a ranger on foot, or even up in a helicopter, may not be able to access.

A flooded area of southeast Texas is seen from a drone piloted by New York state Forest Ranger Bruce Lomnitzer of Indian Lake during his work last month assisting people and locations damaged by Hurricane Harvey. The state Department of Environmental Conservation has also deployed rangers and drones to help with efforts in Puerto Rico after it was ravaged by Hurricane Maria. (Photo provided by DEC)

Aiding searches

Lomnitzer is one of 14 DEC pilots who trained for several months under the guidance of the Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research (NUAIR) team. In recent months he has used his drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), to help with multiple search-and-rescue missions.

Forest Ranger Bruce Lomnitzer of Indian Lake, seen paddling a kayak, is one of the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s 14 drone pilots. (Photo provided by DEC)

“And they have been successful in locating bodies of hikers who have died,” said Benning DeLaMater, DEC’s Albany-based public information officer. “We anticipate that it will serve the agency in locating missing hikers.”

Those searches include one in Little Falls, where Lomnitzer flew for three days before a fireman told him that he thought he saw something floating in a river. With a drone, searchers determined that this floating object was the third and final deceased subject they were looking for.

Lomnitzer also flew a drone from the Canyon Bridge, within the Adirondack Mountain Reserve’s property near the AuSable Club in the town of Keene, upstream into a tight gorge with many overhanging trees and branches. This was this past summer to aid in the search for Skip Baker, whom Lomnitzer later found on foot. At a search in Vanderhoof, Lomnitzer flew a drone into a drainage next to Glen Creek Road because the location had too many hazards to be mitigated. Another ranger also flew a drone in a search for a person who was presumed drowned this past summer on the AuSable River, though the drone didn’t return any evidence.

Cheaper than helicopters

Along with improving DEC’s search-and-rescue capabilities, the drones also come at a fraction of the cost of using a helicopter. DeLaMater said DEC estimates the savings to taxpayers to be one-tenth of the cost of the helicopter’s $2,000 per hour.

And when it comes to ground surveys, whether it be DEC personnel touching down on foot for a search and rescue or researching an invasive species situation in a specific area, DeLaMater said DEC thinks the use of drones will equate to one-twentieth the cost of man hours.

“And I think we’ll find out we’ll actually even find we are beating those numbers,” Lomnitzer said.

Overall, DeLaMater said DEC estimates taxpayers will save millions of dollars by using these drones, which he and Lomnitzer said cost anywhere from $1,000 to $14,000 to buy.

Many applications

DEC is emphasizing, though, that search and rescues will be only one small part of the ways they will use drones. In total, the agency has deployed a fleet of 22 drones across the state to enhance its environmental management, conservation and emergency response efforts.

Uses may include documenting rare and endangered species and habitats; radio signal tracking for wildlife; geological mapping related to groundwater quality; mapping and documenting layouts of property boundaries; assessing public facilities, state forests, parks and campgrounds for better management practices; documenting illegal hazardous substance releases by assessing changes in the color spectrum of ground vegetation; sampling remote waterbodies; reconstructing accident scenes; and documenting marine resources for overlaying onto nautical charts with correct spatial orientation.

Recent uses

In recent months, DEC has used drones in several successful missions across the state. These include a response to a wetland area on Staten Island that was difficult to traverse on foot. A drone was deployed to the scene, and within minutes, the pilot spotted an oil sheen on the water and mapped the extent of the spill. Responders were then able to secure the site within a few hours, saving the state valuable resources.

Other uses have included numerous surveys, including that of the Fire Island Beach in Suffolk County on Long Island, a survey of southern pine beetles also in Suffolk County, the survey of phragmites on 200 acres of newly acquired wetlands in St. Lawrence County, a survey of a bat cave in Mineville and the survey of coastal erosion on Lake Ontario.

Helping with Harvey

The use of drones at the oil spill on Staten Island is most similar to the experiences Lomnitzer and DEC had down in southeastern Texas, where they deployed two drones to help aid in the disaster response to Hurricane Harvey. DEC said Lomnitzer mostly used the drones to assess damage of wastewater and health facilities in and around Houston as well as gauging the extent and location of oil spills caused by the flood.

“The sheen I was seeing on northern end of Route 6 in Houston, it was amazing,” Lomnitzer said. “There was a car dealership; the cars were halfway underwater. There was a tire dealership and another automotive service place, and the sheen of that oil slick coming off and from around all of these, it’s going to be interesting how they are going to deal with it.”

The ranger added that he used the drone for situational awareness that could aid rescue efforts, such as seeing which roads were open.

“And because of some of my videos,” Lomnitzer said, “we were able to see levels of the Buffalo Bayou that were dropping and lowering. I used it quite a bit.”

State use vs. public use

DEC’s increased use of drones raises the question of how and why the agency will be able to use these devices, which it views as motorized vehicles, versus the limitations it currently places on members of the public who want to use the same devices in the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserves.

Currently, members of the public are not permitted to launch drones inside state land such as, say, the summit of Mount Marcy. If, however, a member of the public launches or lands a drone from private property and then flies it over DEC lands, the Federal Aviation Administration has jurisdiction. Legally, members of the public can fly drones 400 feet above ground but not any higher, unless they get a special waiver.

Lomnitzer doesn’t have to abide by the same rules, as he and other trained personnel are permitted to fly their drones as far as 1,200 feet above ground.

“But the reality is that I would never need to do that most of the time, unless I’m trying to take a picture of the curvature of the earth,” Lomnitzer said.

He added that he most typically has used the drones at 150 to 200 feet, as that’s the ideal height to conduct most of his mapping.

DEC is in its early stages of determining just what kind of public drone use it will or will not allow on most state land. The agency says the allowable uses and the regulatory mechanism for such use will depend on the land designation. In the Adirondack and Catskill parks’ wilderness, primitive and canoe areas, drone use will not be allowed. That said, DEC’s proposed policies and regulations will, in the coming months, be subject to what they’ve termed a “robust” public comment period.

Whatever the agency determines, Lomnitzer is elated that he now has this tool.

“To be able to utilize this technology, that’s changing every day, it’s like when the original first computers came out,” he said. “It’s almost the same thing with these drones.

“Humans are great,” Lomnitzer added, “but we are not the best witnesses.”