Development and Application of Unmanned Aerial Emission Sampling

Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP)
Oral Presentation

Prepared by

Contact Information:; 919-541-1534


Quantification of emissions from ordnance detonations, propellant burns, and prescribed fires requires an aerial sampling method that can withstand inherent hazards to equipment and personnel. The Department of Defense (DoD) conducts open burning (OB) and open detonation (OD) to demilitarize ordnance, ridding stockpiles of obsolete and hazardous munitions. As the second largest landowner in the U.S., DoD also conducts prescribed burns of installation lands in order to maintain their availability for troop training, for ecosystem conservation, and to reduce the risk of wildfires. Measurement of pollutants from these operations is necessary for installation air permits, range use assessments, inhalation hazard determinations, and land management practices. Accurate, representative, multipollutant, and safe sampling requires a comprehensive aerial sampling method for the lofted plumes that has positional flexibility and capability for remote operation. With DoD sponsorship, EPA’s Office of Research and Development has developed lightweight, gas sampling instrument systems capable of being carried aloft by tethered, helium-filled aerostats (balloons) and, more recently, by National Air and Space Administration (NASA) unmanned aerial systems (UASs or “drones”). The aerostat system has the ability to sample for hours of duration while the UAS system (a multicopter) provides greater flexibility of movement, albeit at durations on the order of 20+ minutes. Advances in sensor development, computer miniaturization, data telemetry, and methods development have made safe plume emission characterization possible for the first time under actual, in-use applications. An extensive array of pollutants can be sampled leading to emission factors which relate the amount of a pollutant to the amount of detonating or combusting material. The aerostat and UAS instrument systems have successfully sampled open combustion plumes at fifteen DoD sites since 2010.