Texas UAV Enthusiast Uses Pilotless Aircraft to Uncover River Contamination
By Carlton Purvis
Created 01/24/2012 - 13:34
By Carlton Purvis
A tip from an amateur unmanned-aerial-vehicle pilot led Texas authorities to open a major investigation into a Dallas meat packing plant, giving credence to assertions by the UAV community that commercial use can be both useful and inexpensive.
A tip from an anonymous amateur unmanned-aerial-vehicle pilot is what led Texas authorities to open a major criminal investigation into the waste practices of a Dallas meat packing plant.
The Environmental Protection Agency, The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), and Texas Parks and Wildlife are investigating whether a Dallas meat packing plant was sending its wastewater to a local river after images from an amateur UAV pilot showed a river behind the plant “full of blood.” The Columbia Meat packing plant sits along a creek that runs into the Trinity River.
The contamination was noticed by the operator after reviewing images he’d taken of the Trinity River while flying a homemade UAV, according to Small Unmanned Aerial Systems News (sUAS), a Web site that tracks unmanned vehicle-related news.
“This flight was undertaken completely within the law, below 400 feet and visual line of sight,” wrote Gary Mortimer of sUAS. Mortimer was one of the first to interview the pilot, who wishes to remain anonymous:
“I was looking at images after the flight that showed a blood red creek and was thinking, could this really be what I think it is,” the UAV operator said. After contacting local environmental agencies and the Coast Guard, the pilot said investigators were dispatched within 20 minutes, starting a two-month investigation that led to the execution of a search warrant on Thursday.
Pig blood had been flowing from the packing plant into the creek from an underground pipe near the back of the facility, according to Dallas County Health and Human Services and the search warrant. There is an active criminal investigation into the discharge, said Andrea Morrow from the TCEQ press office.
Columbia Packing Company issued a statement Wednesday saying that it was “surprised by the allegations raised last week and was previously unaware of any such concerns.”
“A good news drone story for a change. Every environmental department really ought to have one,” Mortimer wrote.
Farmers, utilities companies, and even news organizations say that using aerial drones would be beneficial to daily operations; however, drones are still illegal to operate commercially in the United States. “Model aircraft” can operate at elevations of 400 feet and below and licenses are available for government and law enforcement agencies to operate at higher altitudes.
“The agency has issued 266 active testing permits for civilian drone applications but hasn't permitted drones in national airspace on a wide scale out of concern that the pilotless craft don't have an adequate 'detect, sense, and avoid' technology to prevent midair collisions,” the Los Angeles Times reported in November.
"At the moment defense contractors are lining up to sell police forces expensive gear. It's one of those things in life where chucking more money at something does not make it the best," Mortimer said by email. The UAV used to photograph Trinity River was created by mounting a point-and-shoot digital camera onto a $75 airframe.
"[The Trinity River case] shows that flights within visual line of sight and below 400 feet have a use. Farming is a very different place from law enforcement. It could be argued that agriculture and environmental and construction ought to be allowed first. But the big defense contractors don't see it that way."
Mortimer says UAS technology gives operators the "ability to look over a fence" that didn't exist years ago, so privacy issues are inevitable.
But, "in this instance though," he said, "I think the images exposed a wrongdoing that needed to be found. It does make you wonder why that volume of blood was not sensed somewhere downstream and then investigated though."
"From where I sit overseas, the lack of regulations in the USA just seems like madness. You're falling behind over there," he said.