The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation announced this week that it is sending 22 drones across the state to “enhance environmental management, conservation and emergency response efforts.” The "unmanned aerial vehicles" have already proven their worth in hurricane-ravaged Texas.
At the rollout, DEC officials said they anticipated using drones for natural disaster relief and recovery along with search and rescue missions, forest fire suppression, wildlife management, invasive species detection, and forest health evaluations.
According to a press release, 14 DEC pilots trained for several months under the guidance of the Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research team at the FAA’s UAS test site at Griffiss International Airport in Rome, one of only six such sites in the nation.
Bruce Lomnitzer is a Forest Ranger for Region 5 out of Indian Lake. He's also a drone pilot for the DEC, just back from search-and-rescue in Houston. "Some of the things I was flying, some of the staging areas, just so our management team could actually figure out what was out there. The other thing I did was fly some of the damaged areas, flooded, and also some of the gutting houses. Checked all that stuff out. The biggest thing I would say that I brought to it was just a little bit better situational awareness of what exactly the devastation was and what's goin' on from an aerial view."
DEC deployed two drones to Texas to help aid in Hurricane Harvey disaster response. "One of the biggest things with the drone is it just gives you that aerial perspective. Instead of looking through binoculars, now I can take the drone and get it up in the air and get it closer to objects or subject, depending on which you need to be."
The drones significantly reduce the hazard for responders and improve response time, according to the DEC. "GPS was terrible because it didn't have a clue of what roads were closed. When we were in West Houston it was taking a long time to get anywhere because of so many different roads being flooded out and closed, and not all the side roads were on the iDrive Texas website. So what I was able to do was put the drone up in the air to see which roads were open, see if they were gonna get is to where we wanted to go and shorten some of our trips. Before I started using the drone it would take us an hour and a half to do a 7-minute drive."
Forest Ranger Captain Adam Pickett is Section Chief at Albany's Division Office. He says drones provide enhanced levels of intelligence, far superior to now old-fashioned ground troops and helicopters. "They'd be tryin' to call back on the radio and describe what they're seeing through words, and as we all know, pictures are worth a thousand of those, so, using the drone platform to give us those images, so that we can analyze them, multiple people can analyze the same information at once, it really helps speed up the response time."
Governor Andrew Cuomo sent three drones and two DEC operators to Puerto Rico to assist the New York Power Authority in restoring the island’s grid and carrying out other emergency response missions.