While Unmanned Aerial Vehicles have not yet had the revolutionary impact that many once predicted, the use of UAVs has still managed to grow slowly but steadily over the last few years, and is expected to continue to do so into the future.
In 2018, the number of FAA-certified remote pilots increased by roughly 50 percent over the previous year, according to commercial drone analyst and Forbes contributor Colin Snow. That spike in certifications can be primarily attributed to pilots who work for organizations with internal drone programs, rather than drone-based service providers, indicating that growth is now primarily driven by commercial industries that have discovered a range of uses for the devices.
Having previously examined the ways in which increased UAV usage could enhance employee safety at various types of worksites and facilities, as well the ways in which the expanded scope of drone inspections could put employers at increased risk of OSHA citations, this third installment will focus on the technology's environmental implications.
In order to determine the environmental risks associated with a site and determine the overall feasibility of a potential location, many employers have already begun using environmental mapping drones to perform topographic surveys. Specially equipped UAVs can capture the type of detailed, high-resolution images needed for such an assessment more expediently than traditional ground-based methods, and less expensively than helicopter or airplane measurements.
A 2017 study conducted by the EHS research and consulting firm Verdantix found that 17 percent of firms surveyed used or planned to use drones for environmental mapping at all or some relevant locations. The report also found that the industries quickest to embrace the technology included energy, infrastructure, agriculture, mining and construction businesses.
As more companies recognize the ease and cost-efficiency of environmental mapping drones, which can complete preparation, flight and image processing tasks all in a single day, it's likely that their use will become even more widespread.
Drones can conduct topographical surveys more quickly and affordably than traditional tools.
There are many ways in which drones can enhance the physical safety of a facility or worksite, often by performing high-altitude inspections or tasks that put workers at risk of falling. But drones could also be used to keep employees removed from environmental risks, and to catch potential Clean Air Act violations before they cause harm to an employer's workforce, community or bottom line.
If a project or accident site contains asbestos or toxic chemicals, a drone inspection could potentially be conducted before any employee or emergency responder has to set foot into the area and be exposed to health risks. Specially equipped UAVs could even be used to detect the presence of harmful chemicals to determine if and when it is safe for humans to enter the location.
Similarly, drones equipped with Forward-Looking Infrared cameras have been used by players in the oil and gas industries to detect emissions irregularities, with warm yet otherwise invisible gas leaks captured in color by the infrared imaging. This practice could potentially be scalable to any industry that deals in the use of potentially hazardous chemicals, as drones equipped with the ability to detect the presence of such elements could patrol facilities in search of unwanted emissions. Catching such breaches internally before they are uncovered by a government inspection could save a business from the costly citations and settlements that typically arise from CAA violations.
With the ability to survey and map the environmental risks of a proposed site and the potential to uncover dangerous emissions violations at existing facilities, it's clear how drones can be used in both the planning and active stages of environmental and safety management.