It’s no secret that I’m concerned about the increasing use of drones (except those that deliver beer) for military and/or surveillance purposes. It’s even less of a secret that I’m sickened by spying, especially from within our own government. So I’m surprised to be writing a story in which I support China’s use of drones to spy on polluters, but here I am. Damn you, science, you’ve done it again!
Pollution in China’s major cities is a big problem — such a big problem that Beijing is developing a nuclear plant (fueled with thorium, not uranium) to try and find alternate fuel sources. Pollution is such a big problem that travel agencies offer “haze travel insurance” for travelers whose flights are canceled due to pollution or who spend two or more days in Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’ian, or other big, smoggy cities. The air pollution index has to read over a certain number in each city. In February, Shanghai’s air pollution index topped 100 on 17 days (0-50 is considered good, 51-100 moderate, and 101-200 unhealthy. Anything over 300 is considered hazardous).
China is also using drones to combat pollution, inspecting cities such as Beijing for illegal emissions, particularly from steel mills, cement plants, and power stations, many of which run on coal. In about two hours, one drone can cover 70 square kilometers. The Ministry of Environmental Protection began acquiring these drones in 2012 and now has four. They cost roughly $1.3 million each.
The spying itself isn’t rocket science — the color of the smoke is often all that’s needed to figure out what’s going in inside whatever facility the drone passes over. White smoke generally indicates that all is kosher inside and that the smokestack is properly scrubbed. But brown, black, or purple smoke suggests a problem. A Ministry official confirms that there “were too many chimneys like these…” and that the drones even got footage of open flames. Yikes.
The Ministry states that information gathered by the drones has helped them with hundreds of cases concerning potentially illicit emissions and other forms of pollution. Catching polluters is generally difficult because the inspectors are easily recognized, and offenders just halt production for a couple days until the smoke has cleared, so to speak. But no one’s expecting the drones. Until they read an article about it.
While the drones bust polluters, the evidence they gather also has implications on the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the government’s strategies in trying to deal with pollution. It would seem that current policies aren’t particularly effective; maybe the penalties aren’t either. Ironically, the Ministry will soon use chemical sprays to help dissolve the smog when it gets particularly thick. Or rather, the chemical freezes the pollutants and keeps them in the air, which I guess doesn’t really solve the problem, but a Band-Aid is probably better than nothing.
And hey, what do you know — they’d be using drones for that too.