Effective and safe emergency response to oil and chemical spills is highly dependent on access to information — specifically, aerial photography of the incident site. Such photography provides critical information regarding the incident’s size, scope and potential threats to human health and the environment. The increasing use of drone technology supports the entire incident life cycle, from readiness through remediation and subsequent restoration.

From a readiness perspective, drones are widely used to document asset conditions, including surrounding areas. Similar to utilities in the power industry, pipeline companies can use drones to survey asset rights-of-way and note any needed maintenance or other potential issues.

In the event of a spill, the ability to immediately deploy drones provides critical information to responders and regulators. For example, on-demand use of drones enables responders to verify if containment measures, such as booms in bodies of water, are effectively containing the spill. Before the use of drones, obtaining this information could be delayed by property access issues or the availability of helicopter or fixed-wing aviation service providers.

Drones also enable responders to view the incident site without putting anyone in harm’s way. At one spill site, logistical concerns and poor air quality in the hot zone made it unsafe to immediately assess the situation in a way desired by all interested parties. A drone was flown to the incident location to safely obtain aerial photographs and video, which were subsequently presented at the on-site Incident Command Center.

Drones provide significant value during the recovery/remediation phase, providing daily and on-demand photography and video of the spill site for the cost of the equipment and a pilot. Such an expense is considerably less than just a few years ago, when it was necessary to contract daily aviation services — for multiple weeks at a time — just to photograph the site in support of monitoring and cleanup efforts.

When combined with the most recent pre-spill readiness/inspection photos, drone aerial photography provides a historical, documented view of the entire incident. In addition, aerial photographs can support managing potential property damage claims. The photographs can verify if damage was a result of cleanup efforts and activities or other activities not associated with the cleanup work.

As with any specialized equipment, it is recommended that companies contract with service providers who have pilots with a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Part 107 certificate and highly experienced emergency responders to analyze drone footage. FAA-certified pilots have training on safety and procedures for alerting regulatory authorities regarding the flight path, among other areas.

Emergency response is a skill gained through experience, continuous training and lessons learned. By verifying your support organizations have FAA-certified drone pilots and experienced emergency responders that can be immediately deployed to incident sites, you are enhancing the safety and effectiveness of your response and containment efforts and, potentially, speeding the process toward full restoration.

Trevor Gustafson is a project manager at Burns & McDonnell. He has served clients in various emergency response projects, site investigation and remediation at sites impacted with a wide range of contaminants.