Aug. 13 2018

Video: The Environmental Health Sciences Drone Takes Flight

Markus Hilpert, associate professor of Environmental Health Sciences, is standing in a field in Calvert Vaux Park in Brooklyn, his hands working a remote control. A hundred feet in the air is the Columbia Mailman School’s first unmanned aerial vehicle: a custom-engineered octocopter drone that promises to revolutionize environmental exposure assessment research.

With funding through a Dean’s pilot grant—no pun intended!—the aerial research platform was developed by Hilpert and colleagues from Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Its eight propellers provide a stable platform for various sensors the researchers can mount to collect real-time data on health threats such as black carbon, mercury, and even radiation, as well as a special compartment where air samples are collected and stored in mylar bags for testing on the ground.

The drone is only the latest example of James Bond-style high-tech gadgetry developed and used by the Department of Environmental Health Sciences. Other examples include air-sampling backpacks and silicon bracelets used by the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, and a package of technologies deployed by Darby Jack in his ongoing study of urban cycling. These portable monitors are complemented by one of the nation’s largest environmental health sciences laboratory in a school of public health.

Hilpert, who studies the way pollutants disperse in the air, soil, and water, says his drone may be the first of its kind to take multiple air samples for environmental health research. “It’s a unique capability that allows us to test for thousands and thousands of chemicals of concern,” he says. “This is crucially important so we can get a more complete understanding of the mix of potentially harmful substances in the atmosphere.”

Traditionally, air samples are taken using handheld or stationary monitors at the ground level or second story. By contrast, the drone can take samples at distances of several hundred meters following a predetermined flight path—a capability he says offers a number of advantages.

“We can fly the drone in disaster situations similar to the chemical plant fire in Texas last summer where it would not have been safe to take measurements using a handheld monitor,” says Hilpert. “Our drone also allows us to pinpoint pollution sources. By flying up and downwind from a suspected pollution source, we can see where pollutants are coming from and where they’re going, always with the goal of protecting the health of surrounding communities.”