The Federal Aviation Administration projects as many as 30,000 unmanned aerial vehicles in domestic airspace by the year 2020, thanks in part to a new FAA permitting process for civilian drone operations starting in 2015.

It’s a move that’s raising questions—and concerns—about the use and deployment of drones.

“This trend—combined with recent incidents involving drones—brings up serious policy issues about privacy and surveillance by government agencies, private citizens, activist groups, and commercial entities,” says Eric Brown, CBIA’s director of energy and environmental policy.

Dr. Massimiliano Lega, an aerospace engineer and environmental engineering professor at the University of Naples, Parthenope, touched on some of these issues at the fall meeting of CBIA’s Environmental Policies Council.

Eye in the Sky

The event, held at the Saybrook Point Inn, featured live drone demonstrations, Q&A sessions, and discussions with national and regional officers of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about plans for using remote devices for business monitoring and compliance.

Sharing actual images captured by a three-foot drone—including several taken during the event—Lega noted that unmanned aircraft can be outfitted with multispectral cameras, thermal and radiometric sensors, and other sophisticated instruments that detect everything from breaches in a building’s thermal insulation to subsurface contamination of soil or water.

In spite of negative press about drone deployment, Lega focused on some of the technology’s positive potential, including:

  • Higher crop yields through soil monitoring and early pest detection
  • Reduced negative environmental impacts and risks to human health
  • Solid waste landfill monitoring through aerial infrared thermography
  • Increased energy efficiency and the detection of problems with a building’s envelope
  • Development and safe placement of power lines and monitoring of suspension joints
  • Improved traceability of pollutants, including calculations of individual source contribution to contamination when there are multiple potential sources, and determining emissivity for different materials
  • Reconstruction of contaminated sites, through 3D imaging, based on data collected and forensic environmental engineering
  • Automatic continuous sampling and measurement of heavy metals
  • Real-time process monitoring of wastewater that detects pollutants not visible to the naked eye

“Many investigations begin with evidence of this type of damage,” said Lega, “rather than evidence of an illegal polluting act.”

Better Data Collection

Timothy Watkins, deputy national program director for Air, Climate and Energy Research for EPA, described his agency’s Geospatial Measurement of Air Pollution (GMAP) program, which uses GPS and high-resolution, rapid-response mobile instruments to map air pollution patterns and measure source emissions of VOCs (volatile organic compounds), particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and other precursor pollutants of ozone.

The agency’s draft roadmap to next-generation air pollution monitoring, said Watkins, focuses on reliable, lower-cost technology, such as miniaturized sensors that require a smaller platform than traditional monitoring equipment. He said new monitoring strategies could help businesses cut compliance costs, reduce product loss, and improve worker safety.

Robert Judge, EPA Region I air monitoring coordinator, and Ric Pirolli, director of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Air Planning & Standards Division, joined Watkins in answering business leaders’ questions about the quality of data, spatial and temporal gaps in data collection, and how to interpret findings—including isolated and instantaneous readings, rather than periodic readings that capture data over a significant period of time, or networked monitoring that captures many more data points and provides a clearer overall picture of air quality and pollution.

These issues, Brown observed, have significant implications for addressing cross-state air pollution, also known as regional transport, where high air pollution levels in downwind states, such as Connecticut, are caused by activities in upwind states.

“Ninety percent of Connecticut’s air quality problems are traced to transport issues,” Pirolli agreed, “so our state has a great interest in developing the technologies to measure that.”

While Connecticut has strict laws controlling sources of air pollution emissions, the same cannot be said of other states. The EPA has determined that pollution sources in 27 upwind states, including power plants producing much cheaper electricity, contribute significantly to Connecticut’s inability to meet or maintain compliance with federal air quality standards.

DEEP Commissioner Dan Esty has pointed out that regional air pollution transport puts Connecticut—already a high-cost energy state—at an even greater economic disadvantage.

New Frontiers, New Questions

While drone technology holds promise, legislation and regulation of drones lags the technical advancesCrowded  made possible by unmanned aircraft.

Issues that have yet to be resolved are what constitutes a drone, who may operate one and how, and what protections businesses and individuals have against invasions of privacy, harassment, and industrial espionage.

Brian Hearing, founder of DroneShield, cautions businesses to become familiar with laws governing the use of and appropriate response to drones. (Local ordinances vary widely, he says.) He also recommends that businesses develop incident response plans.

DroneShield manufactures a small device that detects unmanned aircraft, captures digital and acoustic evidence that “fingerprints” them, and alerts property owners to their presence.