Do Drones Have a Place in the Phase I ESA Process?

Google the phrase, ‘use of drones in engineering’ and a plethora of listings will populate your screen.  From performing cell tower inspections to farming to delivering packages, drone use in business is increasing daily and seems limited only by one’s imagination.

At some point, you have probably pondered the use of drones (Also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – UAVs or Unmanned Aircraft Systems – UAS) in the Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (ESA) process.

Just think about how useful it could be to use a drone to fly into areas where environmental professionals have limited access, due to either the size or condition of the subject property.

Imagine setting up on the perimeter of your target site and navigating around it using a drone to get real-time footage of on-site conditions.  What about flying over adjacent properties to complete the vicinity survey or atop a building to inspect the roof or roof-top equipment?  The possibilities are endless.

However, is it realistic? More importantly, is it something that can be done in accordance with the current ASTM E1527-13 Standard?  Also, does it require approval under the ASTM Standard?

Thanks to the high quality of today’s cell phone cameras, the use of traditional cameras to document site conditions is diminishing.

Are there legal implications, such as federal and /or state regulations or privacy restrictions that have to be considered?   The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) advises anyone considering the use of drones to learn about airspace restrictions and to operate the drone within applicable FAA guidelines and regulations.

Is there specialized training for drone use or can current staff quickly catch on?   The FAA advises that the drone pilot be at least 16 years old for business use and at least 13 for recreational use.

These are the questions we should be asking, along with understanding applicable local, state and federal regulations, when considering the applicability of drones in the Phase I ESA process.

Drones are relatively inexpensive and produce the highest-quality footage. Therefore, it certainly seems feasible that an environmental professional would use one to complete the site reconnaissance for some properties.

In fact, some engineering firms use drones to perform inspections of cell towers to reduce the risk of injury to employees.  Drones could be especially useful for environmental firms in completing the site reconnaissance portion of the Phase I ESA, specifically for large acreage and vacant properties or properties located in remote and dangerous areas.  For properties located within close proximity of an office, drones could potentially reduce the overall cost of completing a Phase I ESA – saving both time and money.

During a luncheon I attended recently, a developer shared footage captured using a drone to fly over his project and gave the audience a real-time look at its progress.  It was wonderful and everyone in the audience seemed captivated. It prompted many to think about what else could be accomplished using drones.

Are there other uses beyond the site reconnaissance? Is there also applicability or use in monitoring site assessment and remediation activities?

As drone technology improves, commercial applications will increase.  The challenge for those of us in the environmental industry is to start thinking, developing and planning for it now.

I challenge each of you to think about this topic and to share your thoughts or concerns about the use of drones in the Phase I ESA process with us.   This technology could be a game changer for the environmental industry as we continuously look to improve how we work to better serve our clients and to produce the best quality product possible while remaining cost competitive.

More information on applicable federal guidelines on drone use for work or business can be found on the FAA website:  PM Environmental also encourages you to become familiar with applicable local and state requirements.

Happy flying!

About the Author

Monica Gilmore-Love is a Regional Manager and Senior Consultant at PM Environmental, Inc. She has more than 25 years of experience in a wide range of environmental areas including the assessment of vacant land to heavy industrial sites as well as multi-family residential facilities. Gilmore-Love’s core experience is primarily in the area of due diligence for property transactions of various property types and sizes. This is complimented by her experience in other aspects of real estate property transactions such as business environmental risk considerations including asbestos, lead-based paint, mold and water intrusion and other related hazardous material identifications.

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Publication Details

August 2, 2016


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