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Drone usage assists in Alaska's conservation efforts

Left to right: KDLL's Hunter Morrison, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation's Tessa Gottlob and Ryan Peterson
Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation
Left to right: KDLL's Hunter Morrison, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation's Tessa Gottlob and Ryan Peterson

In the parking lot of ARC Lake just outside Soldotna, two environmental program specialists orient themselves with the controls and operations of a drone with a built-in camera. The piece of technology is just one of many in the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s fleet, some of which have thermal cameras and water sampling capabilities.

The practice flight is the Soldotna branch’s first of the year, as recent cold weather conditions have prevented any air time. Wind gusts the night before exceeded speeds of 40 miles per hour, but diminished to a light breeze by morning.

“Every month, we really try to get out and get the drone in the air,” said Ryan Peterson, a certified drone pilot with the department. He says this time of year, they focus on flight training and proficiency.

“The challenge in the wintertime is weather, the drones have operation limitations and conditions,” Peterson said.

The agency’s Soldotna office currently has three drone pilots, each representing different divisions. Peterson works for the department’s water quality program, ensuring that wastewater is properly discharged to protect human health and the environment. He primarily oversees proper installation and maintenance of septic tanks.

“You can now get aerial imagery with a proficient flight pilot while you’re constructing," Peterson said. "It’s not going to be coordination or you don’t have to wait for a surveyor for the entire time. You can get a surveyor out afterwards to get the official survey, but during construction, you can work with your drone and provide that data to the state, to the users, and really document where your infrastructure is installed.”

Peterson says drones can also be used for inspecting disposal systems from a bird’s eye view. He says drone use not only makes his job more efficient, but helps cut related survey costs.

“To get a replicate of that, you’re going to need to get an actual plane in the air, and a flight survey done," Peterson said. "This allows the department and all drone users to replicate that, but on a much smaller scale and safer scale. It’s using that new technology and showing how it could be utilized to do our business better.” 

The Soldotna office recently onboarded a new drone pilot for its spill prevention and response division. Tessa Gottlob just completed the necessary coursework, which instructs users on procedures, regulations and operating requirements for safely flying drones. She has only flown in the field once before.

“If you have an accident, something happens, oil leaks from a tanker truck from a facility sending a drone up into the air to see where this oil is going and being able to track it, that’s going to help us respond so we know where to put our response equipment, and where we need to start the recovery operations," Gottlob said. "It can also identify if the leak is from some unknown component at an oil facility. It’d be pretty easy to identify with an aerial vision.”

Hunter Morrison

After getting a feel for the controls, Gottlob practices flying the drone around. She scans the sky for curious birds and other airborne hazards. Due to the nature of wintertime flying, the drone only stays in the air for a few minutes, as battery life begins to decrease and fingertips operating the system go numb.

“One of the big things I like to show is how this recent technology can be used to make our jobs or the requirements of the department more transparent, or also make their lives easier," Peterson said. "I work with a lot of contractors and engineers, and it’s really showing that this new technology can be utilized in their job processes, as well as the department, to further our mission.”

The department’s drone pilots can be used in partner agency operations, including those of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard.

In his job, Peterson feels he’s following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who were both pilots.

Hunter Morrison is a news reporter at KDLL
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