Drone Use for Environmental Monitoring May Grow Under Rule

The use of drones for environmental monitoring in the U.S. is expected to grow now that the first rule for governing their non-recreational use is in effect, but more work is ahead for regulating them, participants in a webinar said Aug. 30.

The new rule for unmanned aircraft systems from the Department of Transportation, which went into effect Aug. 29, establishes a waiver process for certain operators covering areas such as speed and altitude. The webinar examined other state and federal regulations being developed to address privacy and other legal issues related to commercial drones.

“Drones are not going to replace some of the other existing tools. It’s a new tool. They have the potential to revolutionize environmental applications when used at the right scale and for the right purpose,” said Joseph Muhlhausen of CielMap, a Maryland-based company, adding that the rule providing guidelines for their use “allows it to happen in a timely manner in the U.S.”

The best use of drones for environmental monitoring is for highly detailed coverage of a relatively small area, he said.

Muhlhausen said his company was looking into new projects it could do now that some restrictions have been waived. It already has used a drone with remote sensors to assess flood risks in a small island in the Marshall Islands, where chartering an airplane for the survey would have been too expensive and satellites wouldn’t provide enough detail.

Environmental uses are a big part of the potential future role of drones, ranging from pipeline monitoring to conservation, said Joanna Simon, an associate at Morrison & Foerster LLP, who moderated the discussion.

Concerns About Legal Issues

Muhlhausen said drones could be used in environmental enforcement because they can be packed in a suitcase and deployed quickly.

The Environmental Protection Agency, however, doesn’t use them for enforcement because of legal barriers and liability issues.

Jeramie Scott of the Electronic Privacy Information Center at Georgetown University Law School said environmental monitoring with drones could involve privacy concerns in areas where the aircraft fly over people or pick up information such as cell phone signals and license plates.

“It will be important to be wary of those issues in order to make people comfortable with implementation of domestic drones,” he said.

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