Unmanned aerial systems (drones)

Why we use unmanned aerial systems

Ecology began a centrally coordinated unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or drone program, in early 2022 to provide guidance and oversight for diverse data collection needs. The program supports FAA-certified remote pilots using proven hardware and software solutions configured for consistently safe and efficient data gathering across various environmental programs. We operate UAS under an official agency policy and in accordance with Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

How do we use UAS?

The benefits that UAS offer the fields of environmental monitoring and conservation are being realized by an ever-increasing number of researchers and scientists. UAS provide quick, easy, and cost-effective insights, on demand.

The applications for UAS vary widely, but can be used to capture high-resolution imagery and video that give scientists and first responders a new perspective and important information that supports data-driven, real-time decision making.

Applications of UAS at Ecology

  • Aerial photography/videography
  • Coastal erosion monitoring
  • Spill response/emergency response
  • Mapping and site inspections
  • Structure-from-motion modeling 
  • Lidar (Light detection and ranging)
  • Temporal change monitoring
  • Air and water quality surveys 
  • Communications products and storytelling

Benefits of using UAS for environmental work

  • Increased safety and reduced risk for our staff.
  • Scale of the landscape to be surveyed exceeds the capacity of staff and/or conventional aircraft.
  • The above-ground-level operational requirements exceed the safe operation limits of conventional aircraft.
  • Survey equipment, such as cameras, video cameras, infrared cameras, radar, sonar, and Lidar, are best deployed using these vehicles.
  • Manned aircraft are usually unavailable and not cost effective


We fill out a project checklist every time we use UAS to support our work. Below is a list of all approved projects.

Project Name ECY Program Date
Medical Lake ESH landfill fire TCP April - September 2024
Abandoned mine lands TCP Ongoing
Habitat Restoration Pilot Program SEA 2024
Brownfield site inspections TCP Ongoing
Hazardous spill and incident response SPPR Ongoing
WCC South Prairie Creek restoration SEA/WCC November - December 2023
North Cove coastal erosion monitoring SEA Ongoing
Port Susan Bay restoration project SEA Ongoing
Soos Creek TMDL EAP June - October 2023
Eyes Over Puget Sound (EOPS) EAP June - September 2023
Railroad Creek effectiveness monitoring EAP Ongoing
Subsurface landfill fire - Yakima SWM Ongoing
Ecology facility inspection Admin Services Ongoing
Stillaguamish hydrography verification ITSO March 2023
Assessing macroalgae coverage EAP July - October 2022