No Fly Zone?


At this year’s SWANApalooza, I sat in on a session in which Jay Hatho, the CIO and senior vice president at SCS Engineers, explained that the widespread use of drones in the waste industry is still years away.

Waste management is, however, embracing the benefits of big data, and one of the best ways to collect more accurate data more quickly while reducing costs is through the use of drones.

The Great Lakes Drone Company in Southwest Michigan outlines a number of uses:


  • Periodic inspections of more remote parts of a landfill, enabling the inspector to cover more terrain and seeing areas that are not necessarily easily traversed on foot
  • Inspecting areas where getting a person in is either a safety risk or very difficult (the receiving pit at a waste-to-energy plant or transfer station, for example)
  • Inspecting the interior and exterior of buildings, especially where access is difficult


  • Map changes in landfill fill areas
  • Tracking the size or location of a landfill work site
  • Tracking the quality of the growth of cover vegetation at a landfill
  • Assessing the earth dikes or outfalls (which may be hard to access) at large leachate or wastewater treatment ponds
  • Documenting the presence or absence of certain forms of wildlife
  • Landfill topography assessment


  • Periodically surveying a site’s fence line, where parts may not be readily accessible, to determine if any new “neighbors” have appeared
  • Assessing an accident in which hazardous materials are involved and access to the accident site is difficult
  • Inspecting the public access road outside the facility for trash that has blown off vehicles
  • Use of an infrared camera to spot sub-surface fires

What I would really like to point you to is our Landfill Manager’s Notebook column in the March/April 2017 issue of MSW Management. Neal Bolton lays out in great detail what you need to know about implementing the use of drones for landfill mapping.

He covers everything from camera resolution and CAD software necessities, to the flight process and additional uses for drones. Here is an excerpt from it:

Once the processing is done, the map preparer must clean up the data. Remember this process is automated, and the software doesn’t know the difference between a GMC pickup and a pile of concrete rubble. It treats everything as topography. That means the technician deletes the contour lines that define the pickup and makes adjustments to sift through the noise created by trees, brush, or other heavy vegetation. Every site—and every project—is a little different, but with a typical flight, the process takes a week or so.

Drones have potential applications beyond topographic mapping. Drones and mapping technology are being used at waste facilities to improve the quality of fill sequence planning, conduct time-motion studies on machine productivity, and allow for in-depth analysis of traffic patterns, cell construction, litter control, and more. Drones can also be used to quickly measure stockpile or compost windrow volumes—something that can help facilities manage inventory. Finally, drones equipped with thermal imaging cameras can detect surface heat that could indicate a sub-surface landfill fire.

Maybe some of the resistance to bringing in drones as a serious tool is because they’re being used almost as much recreationally as they are being used in various industries. But just because they’re fun, doesn’t mean they can’t be a serious and important technology.

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  • Diane Samuels, SCS Corporate Communications.

    We respectfully disagree with this summary of Jay Hatho’s presentation. Jay spent his presentation discussing how and why large sets of data dutifully collected, stored and reported to meet regulatory and operational necessity are untapped resources. These resources already expensed, and with analysis represent untapped value for landfill owners and operators. His point is that our clients are now using a different approach and tools to mine the data to manage landfill assets on a different level, one that leads to smart decision making and is more efficient.

    Jay did not, and does not dismiss the use of drones, SCS uses and pilots them when appropriate and cost effective; but rather that the data most customers already collect and store can be used to bring more value now and into the near future than a drone.

    Drones may be more exciting in headlines, but doing more with an existing budget is even better.

    • Arturo S.

      “Duly noted, Diane. Thank you for your comment. My intention was to emphasize the current ability of drones to gather data and not having to wait a number of years for widespread implementation.


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