For about a year now, the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) of Hong Kong has been mobilising its drone operation team gather evidence against illegal landfilling activities. And to date, two cases involving these activities have been successfully convicted.
The EPD counts them as one of its accomplishments in the last 12 months, particularly since culprits of environmental violations are adept at evading law enforcers.
“It was difficult to combat illegal landfilling works in the past because when our enforcement officers approached areas where these activities took place, they were easily spotted, and the people immediately stopped their illicit actions. Now, we can record these activities clearly from a distance with a drone,” said Thomas Wong, EPD environmental protection officer.
Today, the EPD also use drones to investigate ecological disturbances, such as reports involving fish kill.
“If that happens, our drone takes off immediately to search for the pollution source along the river and inspect the extent of the pollution. At the same time, we provide information obtained from the drone to support the work of a field team, which collects water samples and evidence at relevant locations, said Viane Lee, EPD senior environmental protection inspector.
Before every operation, EPD team follow the guidelines set by the Civil Aviation Department to ensure the drone is safe to fly.
Pre-operation preparations include finding a suitable take-off and landing site, planning the flight path, checking the weather forecast, especially the wind conditions, and making sure the drone functions well.
After arriving at the location of operation, they cordon off the take-off and landing area. Right before the drone is ready for take-off, they recheck it to ensure it will not malfunction.
“Safety is always the priority. Good teamwork is the key to a successful operation,” Lee said.
Lee is the only female operator in the drone team, and she has a rich flying experience. When flying the drone, she is always on the lookout for bulldozers pushing earth or trucks dumping construction waste.
“We use the drone to record these activities as evidence. Our colleagues then go to the place concerned to collect information on the suspected offenders,” she said.
Saving manpower and time
With the drone team now in place, the EPD significantly reduces the manpower and time needed to find sources of pollution in the environment.
“Take a 5km-long river as an example. In the past, we needed three to five colleagues to complete an investigation into the source of the pollution, which would take three to five days,” Wong said. “Now, with drones, only one person is required to finish the same job in around an hour.“
When emergencies such as chemical leaks cause water pollution, the drone team will conduct operations as well. It will send real-time images of the incident to the department’s control centre.
Meanwhile, the department hopes to use drones for more aspects of their work, including monitoring the operations of landfills and tackling onshore marine refuse, to further protect the environment.