Officials in Boise, Idaho, are taking to the air to inspect their landfill. But it’s not with traditional aerial photography. Instead, Ada County has acquired FAA approval to utilize a Small Unmanned Aircraft System (sUAS) or drone to collect high-resolution, 2-D images of its landfill on a more consistent basis. Previously, it used manned flights to get aerial photos once or twice a year.
“We knew we could fly cheaper, in other words. And since we could fly cheaper, the landfill operators would not just save tax dollars, but they could also request and receive data more often and in a much faster manner,” says Stephen O’Meara, CIO of Ada County Government based in Boise, Idaho. “Since the IT department is in the business of data creation and management for all departments of the Ada County government, it was an excellent fit for us to go out and try to gather this data on an iterative basis, and in a format that the landfill operators found useful.”
O’Meara says the manned flights would cost the county about $20,000 per flight.
“So far we know we are offsetting the manned overflights by about $13,000 a year. But as we are collecting the data far more often than once or twice a year, we believe the overall value to be much higher than that,” he says.
Drones are a useful tool for landfill managers and will have more uses in the near future, according to Bruce Clark, southeastern region health and safety officer for SCS Engineers based in Long Beach, Calif.
“They are being used to map active areas of the landfill surface on a more frequent basis than airplane overflights, which can help maximize airspace and reduce potential to overfill areas,” says Clark, who has been monitoring the use of drones for several years. “They are scanning areas of buffer property on larger landfills that are difficult to access or are not accessed on a regular basis, to ensure that there are no 'fence line' issues or environmental issues either with the landfill or its neighbors.”
Ada County has one final overflight planned and budgeted for this year before it begins using drones exclusively.
“We will compare and contrast the data the IT department collects with the data hired out for and check for accuracy and efficacy," O'Meara says. "Assuming the data we are collecting for the landfill ourselves is as good as what we pay for commercially, we will no longer use manned flights. So far our data is outpacing what was purchased last year so I am confident that the comparison will lead us to continue to gather the data ourselves."
Ted Hutchinson, deputy solid waste director for County of Ada, says landfill airspace is a valuable commodity and to ensure that the county is maximizing that airspace, officials seek tools that will assist in obtaining the best compaction and the proper application of daily or intermediate covers.
“Being able to obtain timely information assists in the evaluation of airspace use. In the future, we are looking toward adding GPS devices to the landfill compactors and other equipment that will provide information that will be coupled with the drone-gathered information to further our efficiency efforts,” he says.
O’Meara adds that the information collected by the drones is used in different ways.
“We are monitoring the dirt that is moving around the facility, in an effort to determine how much is being added to the active landfill cell," he says. “We will also be tracking the growth of the active cell. And lastly, we are mapping for ground swell, compaction and also erosion all around the landfill property.”
Hutchinson says that reports of drones being used for aerial mapping in crop management, noxious weed control, and other agricultural applications brought the idea of using a drone for mapping the landfill to mind.
“The idea of using this new technology which is less expensive and, therefore, more accessible to provide aerial mapping appeared to be a logical fit,” he says. “Using a drone would provide us the opportunity to have more data, more often. Having this data will aid us in short-term and long-term planning for maximum airspace utilization.”
Transferring landfill inspections to drones is not without its challenges.
Ada County had to undergo an extensive review for authorization with the FAA. It took the county the better part of a year to get permission.
"So we needed patience, but we worked through it and were finally granted a certificate of authorization in April of 2016,” says O’Meara.
Another issue was educating residents on why drones are being used. In addition to several communications, the county created a public website, attached to the greater Ada County website, talking about the program and also logging all of the flights.
“Drone usage within the government is a difficult subject and we wanted to make sure citizens were involved in our efforts at all times,” says O’Meara.
The county issued a press release when it first filed with the FAA for authorization. It then put out another release inviting local media to review the program and see it in operation.
"So far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive," O'Meara says.
Currently, Ada County’s IT department has two pilots certified to fly under its FAA authorization and do so under a training program it created, per FAA guidance.
“Both are licensed pilots, per our requirements—I was lucky to have two folks in my department who met these requirements,” says O’Meara. “As the FAA changes the rules for sUAS in the near future, we may develop a program where we train more folks to fly, but as of right now, they are both in the IT department. And as the county only has one aircraft at this point, two pilots are plenty.”
Ada County is looking at other ways to use the drones in the future.
“We are investigating different optics to add to our sUAS—hyperspectral, multispectral, infrared, etc.,” says O’Meara. “Currently we are using a standard camera. With a different type of camera, we believe that we will able to view hotspots for landfill gas leaks or possibly use to review and identify elements on the surface of the active landfill cell. Our plan right now is to investigate this in the fall, once the ambient temperature drops. It’s a bit too hot out right now to see if this would be successful or not.”