Harris County's Drone Fleet Catches Illegal Garbage Dumping in Houston

The Harris County Environmental Crimes Unit runs a $600,000 program to combat illegal dumping, with drones being an invaluable tool in that effort.

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The state of Texas has familiarized itself with unmanned aerial systems quite thoroughly over the past few years. Most recently, the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) launched a drone program focused on aerial crash scene analysis in Austin, the very same city that law enforcement utilized drones for aerial risk-assessment in apprehending the Austin bomber. While car crashes and nihilistic murderers are certainly viable reasons for efficient drone use, Houston has found the UAV to be an excellent solution for an entirely different problem: illegal garbage dumping.

The City Council recently voted to grant 22 additional surveillance cameras to Harris County’s nearly 150 existing units to combat the purportedly extensive illegal dumping, according to The Houston Chronicle. Ever succinctly named Precinct 1, it currently runs a $600,000 program which includes a fleet of UAVs and numerous full-time employees to help run operations. The Harris County Environmental Crimes Unit traditionally relies on your run of the mill surveillance camera system but has recently garnered an appreciation for their aerial counterparts.

Over the past two years, since the Harris County Environmental Crimes Unit’s inception, the program has contributed to 694 investigations and 396 criminal charges. “It’s been working for the city as a whole—better than we thought,” said Jerry Davis, a councilman who helped launch the anti-dumping program in 2016. 

According to Assistant Chief Deputy Chris Gore, custom-modified cameras track the natural flow of cars and people and automatically zoom in when something unexpectedly halts or interrupts natural movement; presumably, for instance, when someone gets out of their car to dump garbage, or stops walking to do so. The drones, meanwhile, assist in monitoring these arguable anomalies when stationary surveillance cameras can't

For businesses that might be regularly dumping garbage in a parking lot, Constable Rosen claims a search warrant is easily obtainable from the District Attorney’s Office, based on aerially collected evidence. These drones are piloted on a weekly basis to identify any such activities. For Rosen, it’s been a stupendously practical method of catching people in the act.

“Our drone pilot can fly above a scene if we need them to with the proper paperwork and get video footage that way as well,” he said. “When you have video evidence, it’s pretty conclusive.” Video footage is so conclusive, as a matter of fact, that the District Attorney’s Office can readily prosecute violators with it. Prosecutors in environmental crimes can decide on a range of charges, from a parking ticket-level Class C misdemeanor to an actual felony, depending on the amount and type of garbage. 

Most recently, one suspect was caught dumping approximately 2,000 pounds of trash near the bayou, which is connected to the Ship Channel and Galveston Bay. Another suspect rid himself of used oil cans, which violated the Used Oil Collection Act and carries with it a $50,000 fine. The fact that drones are actively helping law enforcement locate, identify, and charge these people is yet another admirable and progressive implementation for these modern aerial tools of ours. 

“It’s just a matter of when we’re gonna catch you,” said Randy Scales, a lieutenant in the Unit. “Not if, but when. We’ll catch you.”

For those of us who value our environment, particularly those residing in Houston, the drone-infused program of the Harris County Environmental Crimes Unit is strategically fighting this unnecessary, man-made polluting.