Game Of Drones: The Future Of Environmental Enforcement and Monitoring Is Overhead

Posted on March 8, 2016 by Jeff Thaler

For many of us, the only “drone” we knew of growing up probably was that boring, monotonous lecture late on a sunny afternoon. Or if you were expert in biology, you would have known that a “drone” is a stingless male bee whose sole job is not to gather nectar or pollen, but to mate with the queen. Today, however, everyone over the age of 5 knows that drones are a hot gift item, anything that flies without a pilot onboard but controlled remotely. A “drone”, in government parlance, is generally termed a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), or a UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) -- which is a UAV, plus the ground-based controls.

UAVs have spawned a wide range of legal and regulatory issues, including not only Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) licensing but significant privacy, tort and property rights matters.  Given the existing and potential use of UAV-collected information about environmental conditions, the next big fight in environmental enforcement will be the admissibility of UAV-collected evidence. Many may not know  of the growing use of, and potentially expanding realm for, drones in the environmental arena. The World Wildlife Fund has been using UAVs for several years for such disparate activities as 1) monitoring prairie dog colonies for potential habitat for one of North America’s most endangered mammals, the black-footed ferret. 2) undertaking surveillance activities to reduce poaching of elephants and rhinos in Africa and Asia, and 3) monitoring the three main species of marine turtles in Suriname to combat poaching of their eggs. Likewise, the Nature Conservancy has tested drones to monitor the sandhill crane population in the U.S.  And a new NGO, Conservation Drones, has been working with groups all over the “developing tropics to use UAVs for conservation.” 

It is not a big leap from use of UAVs for wildlife conservation purposes, to enforcement efforts against unlawful pollution of waterways and illegal logging. For example, a drone can obtain imagery of discoloration suggestive of discharges of hazardous substances; can detect differences in water temperature using thermal sensors to detect illegal discharges; can film illegal mining or deforestation activities; or can even collect small volume water samples from remote areas. But in the US, if one of your clients is the target of such surveillance, is the evidence admissible in an enforcement proceeding?

The answer is—maybe. It depends. The type of answers clients hate to receive from their trusted legal counsel. It is beyond the scope of this post to discuss all of the ongoing machinations of the Federal Aviation Administration as it attempts to develop final rules for the commercial (non-hobby) operation of UAVs. But while the federal government attempts to preempt the field, States have stepped in and, in conflicting ways, attempted to respond to the growing drone game. In 2015, 45 states considered 168 drone bills, and 20 states enacted legislation. In some states, use of a drone over the private property of another person, without prior consent, could result in criminal or civil prosecution or damage claims—even if the drone is used for the environmentally beneficial uses described above. Thus, one must become familiar with her or his state’s laws, as well as monitor the ongoing FAA and Congressional activities, to best effectively prepare and advise clients on this brave new world.

China currently is using  UAVs to track excessive air and water pollution is China. In one city with 40,000 sources of industrial pollution and 900 industrial parks, drones are using “high-resolution digital cameras, infrared and laser scanners, and magnetometers…. Some UAVs are also fitted with an infrared thermal imaging unit that shows the operation of facilities at night.” How this information will be used in China remains to be seen.

At home in the US drones are going to fuel more and more back-and-forth legal maneuvers of environmental regulators and NGOs against companies and their lawyers. The gathering and use of drone-generated information may be as intense a fight as the sport use of the UAVs themselves.  To get a preview of that emerging arena,  check out the more recent “Flight Club” aka Game of Drones—the “bad boys” who want to be the next big sports league. Coming soon to a screen near you.



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