Travis County Parks officials will soon use drones to monitor prescribed burns, track forest health and assess flood damage.
Commissioners on Tuesday approved a draft policy that will let the parks department buy two remote-controlled aerial devices and to train and license four county staff members. The program’s $10,000 cost will be funded with parks donation revenue.
Dan Pacatte, park forester of Travis County Parks, said the drones will be used to assist with and enhance the work the department is doing.
“We came at this with a natural resource management focus,” Pacatte said. “Basically, you can cover bigger areas with a drone than, say, by foot.”
Though the sheriff’s office is considering its own drone program, the parks program is separate, he said, and its drones will not do any surveillance for law enforcement purposes. He said he expects the parks drones will be used about monthly. The draft policy approved Tuesday was modeled after the Texas A&M Forest Service’s drone program.
The drones likely will be small — the size of a briefcase, Pacatte estimates — and could cost between $1,200 to $1,500 per system. Aside from training and licensing staff members, other costs include software to help integrate the devices with county databases.
One major use of the drones will be to track the progress of prescribed burns and evaluate how well burn techniques are working, he said. The county does at least a dozen controlled fires per year to reduce brush and other forest fire fuels and to help maintain ecosystems.
The drones also will be used to keep an eye on trees that might have diseases or infestations, or might otherwise be a danger to park visitors, he said. They also could serve as preventative tools for on-the-ground work in the parks, Pacatte said.
For example, if the county could do a quick check of treetops before contractors do pruning and other work, it could improve worker safety by avoiding unexpected beehives or other hazards — a problem that Pacatte said has happened more than once.
He added that the drones could be used to check on flood damage, as companies and government agencies did after Hurricane Harvey in 2017. County staffers could then share photos with other staff members as well as with commissioners and the public.
“We think that it will actually produce some good visual and informational results,” Pacatte said. “The visuals just seem to carry more of an impact. They tell a story better, I think.”
Precinct 1 Commissioner Jeff Travillion, who co-sponsored the agenda item, said Tuesday that he is intrigued most by the potential benefit of the drones in emergency situations.
“The amount of information that you can get and have access to, the speed with which you can get it and the fact that you don’t put people in harm’s way if there are emergency situations, really made sense to me,” Travillion said. “And like anything else we will deploy a small number, evaluate their success and then determine whether this is a good program and needs to be expanded.”