Send in the Drones! — Scoping and Coping with Adverse Environmental Impacts

FAA Safety Briefing
Cleared for Takeoff



By Diana Robinson, FAA’s UAS Integration Office

Magazine cover graphic.

It’s been over a year since much of the population has been working virtually, and we are all ready for a much deserved vacation. But looking back at the summer of 2018, Karenia Brevis, better known as the Red Tide, was the culprit that struck the Florida coastline, inlets, and waterways with a harmful toxin-producing algae bloom bringing respiratory irritation to humans, and fatality to fish, sea turtles, manatees, birds, and dolphins. The environmental and economic impact to the more than 150 mile stretch of coastal communities was devastating.

Photo of beach.
Beach cleanup during red tide by Manatee County property management crews. Photo by Melissa Matisko

Florida was recently in the news again as roughly 215 million gallons of polluted water was discharged into Tampa Bay from an inactive Piney Point phosphate plant’s retention pond, built into a gypsum stack. A gypsum dewatering stack is a defined geographic area associated with a phosphoric acid manufacturing plant in which gypsum is disposed of or stored outside a fully enclosed building, container, or tank.

The emergency release of this polluted water took pressure off the compromised stack to avoid an accidental spill of even more of its contents. Had the breached retention pond burst, a 20-foot wall of water could have flooded over 300 homes.

Photo of drone monitoring.
Twenty-four hour drone video footage was monitored at the Piney Point site from an SUV. Photo by Melissa Matisko

Drones proved their mettle during both these events.

The main goal of environmental protection and conservation is to protect and preserve wildlife and the ecosystems they inhabit. Whether you are evaluating coastal erosion, or identifying endangered species, drones allow professionals to fly remotely and out of harm’s way. In these events, drones helped local governmental authorities safely and remotely collect, review, and analyze data to determine what actions to take to reduce or eliminate both serious situations.

Photos taken by drones during the Red Tide event identified the most vulnerable areas and allowed researchers/government to track the path of the blooms, as well as deceased sea creatures. This data helped with preparation of clean-up activities for delicate estuaries and tourist destination areas. Drones could quickly identify where clean-up crews should go first, helping to reduce health risks to residents. The use of drones further reduced operational costs and the time it would have taken for employees to go into areas using more traditional methods.

A Tampa area videography company was contracted by Manatee County government to provide drone footage of the retention pond breach. With the assistance of part 107 certificated remote pilots, officials were able to monitor the situation by observing the 24-hour live drone video sent to the Emergency Operations Center. The live feed was active on Zoom and the county’s YouTube page for 30 straight hours.

Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection made a temporary repair to the concentrated leak, and they will continue to monitor it until a permanent solution is found. Drones with thermal cameras were also used to evaluate conditions and scan for nutrient levels in and around the area.

The biggest lesson learned during both of these events is the value of using drones in collaboration with state agencies, local governments, and industry to reduce negative impacts on the economy and environment.

Diana Robinson is a project specialist in the Operational Programs Branch of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office.

This article was originally published in the July/August 2021 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine.
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FAA Safety Briefing
Cleared for Takeoff

Official FAA safety policy voice for general aviation. The magazine is part of the national FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam).