Drones: DLNR’s Latest Tool for State Park Management

Aerial footage used to locate homeless encampments, map historical sites, and monitor flood impacts

In moving towards a more effective, efficient, and open government, Hawaii took another step on the path to modernization with the use of an unmanned aerial system (UAS), better known as drones, by the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR).

“Numerous DLNR divisions have been discussing the use of drones for mapping and resource protection purposes for a number of years,” said Dan Dennison, senior communications manager of DLNR. 

Most recently, DLNR used drone photography in a joint effort with the Governor’s Office on Homelessness to address illegal encampments on the steep slopes of Diamond Head. Read the article from Civil Beat on this effort here.

Mapping homeless encampments along Diamond Head:

Why drones? According to Curt Cottrell, administrator of the DLNR Division of State Parks, “The initial reason was the terrain on the flank of Diamond Head has extremely rough topography and is complicated by a labyrinth of trails through grass and kiawe.

For the encampments there, we were doing ground surveillance and documentation. It was getting very hard to keep track of these camps, so we determined aerial mapping of them would save a lot of time and energy.”

To determine the flight path for its drone, DLNR uses GPS coordinates of trails and flat spots created by several years of foot traffic. A broad sweep in March removed 90 cubic yards of discarded possessions and resulted in several citations to illegal campers. To keep this closed-area free of illegal sites, they fly the drone on once-a-week flights to monitor the area for illegal campers. Formerly, the search process required several hours by a DLNR employee hiking through these areas.

Precise mapping helps enforcement officers, as well as homeless outreach workers, to locate and provide resources to people, without requiring the assistance of a DLNR guide. Contractors bidding on jobs to remove debris also benefit from the information collected by the drone to determine the scope of work, which enables them to make more accurate bids.

Future application of drones

(DLNR’s drone takes flight for its weekly flyover of Diamond Head State Park. Photo courtesy of Department of Land and Natural Resources.)

Drone usage for mapping illegal encampments is currently limited to Diamond Head because the aerial technology is ideal for the rough topography. Many other camps elsewhere around the state are located in flat areas reachable by motor vehicles.

State Homeless Coordinator Scott Morishige said, “Drones were not and will not be used to surveil people experiencing homelessness. Trust is a key factor in establishing relationships with these folks, and we build trust through experienced outreach workers who connect with individuals.”

“In the end, it’s the ability of outreach workers to build trust with people in order to connect them to the right services,” Morishige noted.

According to Parks Administrator Cottrell, plans for drone usage are evolving. Other potential uses include flyovers to conduct archaeological mapping of historic sites, surveys of trail conditions, as well as monitoring stream heights in flash flood prone areas.

In instances of weather-induced damage, footage from a drone’s vantage point will provide better analytical perspective on the scope of impact on the landscape at large.

While drones have been popular in the recreational market for years, this initiative by DLNR opens the door to more efficient and safer ways to deploy state personnel and other resources, along with more effective ways to solve issues facing state agencies.

**Please note that a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certified state employee operates the DLNR State Park’s drone. For public safety reasons, other drones or flying objects are not allowed to operate in Hawaii State Parks without a permit.**

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