Abandoned Mine Lands

New technology is changing the Energy and Environment Cabinet

 By Carrie Searcy

Office of Communications

Drone technology that first gained notoriety through its use in military activity, is now being adopted for civilian use, and is being used by the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet to save both time and taxpayers’ money in its mission to oversee forests, inspect abandoned and reclaimed mine land and even oversee dumps.

“We have recently started using drones,” said John Small, the Commissioner of the Department for Natural Resources (DNR). “They’re amazing instruments and we are really excited about them and where they can take us.”

Used by several divisions within the Cabinet, drones are quickly becoming a well-used tool for DNR and the Department for Environmental Protection (DEP), specifically in the Divisions of Forestry (DOF), Abandoned Mine Lands (AML), the Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement (DMRE) and the Division of Waste Management (DWM).

These unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAVs, more popularly known as drones, are used by trained Department employees to obtain video footage and aerial photos that would be more costly, dangerous or time consuming for workers to produce. The data collected also is often much more detailed, allowing a more accurate assessment of the site being analyzed.


Ben Enzweiler of AML watches a screen that shows what the drones sees while in flight as he flies the drone.

“With the drones, we take aerial, three-dimensional photos to show us the entire scope of a reclamation area,” said Kyle Willard, an Environmental Engineer with DMRE. “What the drones give us is a more detailed, precise, thorough and safer tool that keeps us out of walking slides and situations that could be potentially dangerous.”

According to Small, DNR uses nine drones, four in Forestry, four in AML and one in DMRE. Right now DWM has one drone.

Forestry’s drones will be used to monitor and spot fires, as well as to search for insect damage and disease in forests across the Commonwealth. Since recently purchasing the lightweight and portable Mavic Pros through a federal grant for around $1,100 each, to date, they have only had one test flight. When fire season begins this fall, the drones will be in high demand.

“We have four drones right now because you need two just in case one has issues,” said Mike Harp, a Rural Fire Suppression Technical Advisor with Forestry. “We always have to have a backup.”

The Department of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement utilizes a DJI Inspire 1 Pro model drone priced at around $2500, which was also purchased through a federal grant. Used to observe large coal impoundments and to track reclamation efforts, the UAV is used onsite two to three times a month. While helicopter flights are still used for the same purposes, DMRE is identifying more inspections that could benefit from drone usage.

The DJI Inspire 1 Pro model drone that is used by DMRE.

The DJI Inspire 1 Pro model drone that is used by DMRE.

“Without the drone, we were walking sites that often weren’t accessible and during those occasions we couldn’t collect the data,” said Willard. “We are also saving time without compromising the integrity and accurateness of our inspections.”

A DMRE site's that would require an employee walking without use of the drone.

A DMRE site’s that would require an employee walking without use of the drone.

The Department’s Abandoned Mine Lands Division, sees drone usage as an invaluable tool in reclaiming forfeited permit sites. Used also to assess site feasibility, drones offer in-depth understanding of an area and provide granular information on environmental risks.

Use of the drones has improved the Division’s ability to estimate reclamation costs, has reduced investigation times and has provided much better plan development viewing. AML has two different sets of drones, two DJI Phantom 4 Pros at a cost of $1500 each and two DJI Inspires priced at just over $2500, all of which were purchased through federal grants. Each drone is able to provide 3D modeling, video and execute a more thorough investigation of sites.

As the first Division to obtain drones within the Cabinet, AML also assisted DMRE and Forestry in obtaining FAA certification for pilots by closely working with the Department of Aviation to make training and delegation possible.

The Division of Waste Management is using drones to survey, photograph and take video of landfills, open dumps and hill sides. Capturing images to investigate citizen complaints, the drones also are used in emergency situations like tracking smoke plumes or hazardous waste releases, inspections of facilities and documenting the before and after of construction and cleanups.

A drone takes flight at a DMRE site.

A drone takes flight at a DMRE site.

Bought through a federal grant, the DWM drone is a DJI Mavic Pro that retails around $1700. The drone allows for collecting a large amount of data in a short period of time and keep workers out of potential dangerous terrain and circumstances.

“Our next step is to use drones to carry air monitoring equipment directly into smoke plumes,” said Rob Mauer, a Grants Administrator with DEP. “Right now we are using them every two or three weeks.”

Taxpayers save money with the increased drone usage. Detailed surveys are conducted faster and at a lower cost as compared to helicopters, planes or ground-based measurements, which involve a Cabinet employee walking the site.

“The drones give us a much more accurate estimate of how much it will cost to reclaim areas with AML,” said Small. “With the helicopter costing the Cabinet $600 an hour, it is a tremendous savings too.”

With a quick takeoff, the drones fly at various altitudes, but never exceed 400 feet. As the drone takes off, the pilot watches what the drone is viewing on a portable screen while a ‘spotter’ monitors the drone in the air. As the drone surveys the desired area in the air, it is constantly taking photos or video. When the battery is low, the drone is flown back to its operator to be recharged and changed out with a fresh battery and the drone returns to the air, to the exact spot it left off and continues its recording.

Emily Lawson of DMRE 'spots' the drone while in flight.

Emily Lawson of DMRE ‘spots’ the drone while in flight.

“So far the Cabinet to my knowledge hasn’t crashed or lost a drone,” said Small. “We are just getting started, but so far the drones are working out great.”

Improvements in drone technology are enabling the Department’s drone operators to work around pilot fatigue and operator error.  New algorithms are allowing the drones to find the quickest path during inspections, the ability to start and stop in the exact same location and the way to transmit pictures and data back to the office in a way that allows for quick analysis and turnaround.

“It’s a tool that doesn’t solve all our problems, but it does simplify things,” said Willard. “It is maturing constantly and just getting better and better.”

The DMRE drone is flown on a site in Eastern Ky.

The DMRE drone is flown on site in Eastern Ky.

For more about the drones the Cabinet is currently using, check out their specs below-

Mavic Pro specs, https://www.dji.com/mavic/info#specs (Forestry)

DJI Inspire 1 Pro specs, https://www.dji.com/inspire-1-pro-and-raw/info (DMRE and AML)

DJI Phantom 4 Pros specs, https://www.dji.com/phantom-4-pro/info (AML)

DJI Mavic Pro specs, https://www.dji.com/mavic/info (DWM)

Video and aerial photos courtesy of AML.

Photos by Carrie Searcy

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