ESTCP Principal Investigators facilitated the use of drones for natural resource management at Marine Corps installations by developing a strategic framework for deploying the technology regionally. 

By Laura Mack

Drones can substantially enhance natural resource management on Department of Defense (DoD) installations. They provide detailed, on-demand imagery of areas that might otherwise be inaccessible, allowing personnel to closely monitor critical habitats and compare change over time. However, as with any new technology, obstacles remain in gaining acceptance for drone usage by federal civilians at installations. 

“We saw this great technology that was maturing to the point where it could be used for management and research, and I just knew that it was going to be a really big lift for installations to take it on individually,” said Dr. Susan Cohen, a co-Principal Investigator for an ESTCP project that oversaw the integration of unoccupied aircraft system (UAS) technology into natural resource management for U.S. Marine Corps Installations EAST (MCIEAST). She previously flew drones as part of another SERDP project at Camp Lejeune and found that there was no ability for on-demand drone usage. Every time her team wanted to fly drones, they had to submit special range requests up the chain of command. 

Dr. Cohen, who had previously worked at Naval Facilities Engineering and Expeditionary Warfare Center (NAVFAC EXWC) as a biologist, teamed up with Mr. Joey Trotsky, an environmental engineer at NAVFAC EXWC, to facilitate the adoption of drones at six MCIEAST installations and MCRD Parris Island, and provide a framework for the use of drones as part of natural resource management activities. Most of these installations face the same climate resilience issues, including storm surge, sea level rise, and eroding shorelines. This approach allowed the project team to address similar issues on multiple installations, while still allowing them to develop their own guidelines and needs. 

Figure 1: Staff from MCIEAST gathered at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island to learn to fly drones for research, monitoring, and management decision making. Photo Credit: Dr. Susan Cohen, UNC

The Regional Drone Demonstration for Installations and Environment (REDDIE) framework consists of four main components: training, mission kits, protocols, and demonstrations. For training, drone operators are already required to take a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) paper test, but Dr. Cohen and Mr. Trotsky wanted to add an applied requirement. They assembled a team of professional instructors to design an intensive 2-week long training. Dr. Cohen added that the hands-on element of the course bolstered installation leadership’s confidence in civilian drone operators, and MCIEAST has accepted this combined training protocol as the standard for civilians. 

Dr. Cohen and Mr. Trotsky also sought to provide mission kits to MCIEAST installations that would supply them with drones and supplementary equipment. Six months after the team delivered the kits, a challenge was thrown their way. The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act was enforced and prohibited the use of drones with any main components manufactured by China. The team quickly learned how to navigate cybersecurity concerns by recommending the use of blue drones (cybersecure drones approved by the DoD) or commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) drones with a cyber waiver obtained from the installation ensuring it is cybersecure and complies with DoD policy. 

Despite this setback, the team was able to work with MCIEAST leadership to develop a Marine Corps Order for the project framework. Now, with established protocols and procedures, drone programs can be set up more quickly. The developed project framework also ensures the longevity of the program, providing civilians essential tools for briefing new leadership about potential drone usage on installations. 

“This is a pathway that any installation could pursue and probably succeed over time if they stick with it. That’s most of what it is – sticking with it. If you’re briefing leadership, including all the different parts of the base, and quantifying any advantages to using a drone, it can work,” said Dr. Cohen. 

The team shared these quantifiable benefits by conducting a series of demonstrations. Students had been trained on collecting data that meets natural resource manager needs – understanding the kinds of operations conducted and how to execute them on bases – so they could consider the conditions particular to each installation and design drone missions accordingly. Through these demonstrations, Dr. Cohen and Mr. Trotsky discovered more natural resource applications for drones than they previously anticipated at the beginning of the project. 

First, drones can improve overall situational awareness by making it possible to collect data in places that personnel have difficulty accessing. During one demonstration at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, a team was flying to map marshes and came across a pipe (Figure 2) blocking water flow that the installation had been searching for almost 18 months. 

Figure 2: During a demonstration at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, the project team found a pipe blocking water flow that the installation had been searching for almost 18 months. Photo Credit: Dr. Susan Cohen, UNC

“You can’t just send people mucking out into the middle of an expansive marsh. It was too small to see on satellite, and they can’t access this area by boat,” Dr. Cohen explained. “[With drones], you can collect data in places you never did before.” 

Dr. Cohen shared that drones fill a crucial gap on a project-level scale. Drones make it possible for a team to quickly cover and analyze 100 to 200 acres, for example, that they could not capture on-foot or as detailed via satellite. These applications can lead to cost savings by reducing the time and effort normally applied to surveying installations. Drones can also improve safety measures. 

“I love drones for prescribed burns. I think they are an amazing tool for situational awareness. Instead of [fire managers] having to send people to check on a scenario involving fire, you can deploy a drone to do it,” said Dr. Cohen. “You can also map pre- and post-burn, so it can provide a better metric on how effective your burn was depending on your goal.” 

The detailed data collected from drones advances installation decision-making. The ability to compare data over time is key for determining climate resilience measures at installations, and drones can strengthen long-term monitoring. 

“It’s one thing to say that marshes are eroding, but it’s another thing to quantify it,” Dr. Cohen asserted. “Whether it’s percent cover of trees, or erosion of a shoreline – it’s often a new way of measuring things in areas that are challenging to work on the ground…and if you’re not measuring something, it’s harder to know what kind of impact you’re having with your management.” 

The team’s successes with MCIEAST earned them the ESTCP Project of the Year for Resource Conservation and Resilience for overcoming initial setbacks to implement drones at all seven installations and provide a solid framework for any installation to deploy drones for natural resource management. The project was a collaborative effort and team members included partners from Attollo LLC and the Duke Marine Robotics & Remote Sensing Lab. 

Dr. Cohen left NAVFAC EXWC and pursued more opportunities as the Associate Director of the University of North Carolina (UNC) Institute for the Environment and as the Director of the UNC Drone Lab in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where she oversees projects exploring the environmental applications of drones. She also collaborates with other SERDP and ESTCP projects that need drone mapping and imagery, including efforts to better understand fire behavior with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

“I’m glad ESTCP is willing to take a chance on bringing [drones] to installations knowing there are real obstacles that they may not be able to overcome,” she said. “But it’s important that natural resource managers have the right tools to get these complex jobs done.” 



The Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP) and the Environmental Security Technology Certification Program (ESTCP) harness the latest science and technology to improve the Department of Defense’s environmental performance, reduce costs, and enhance and sustain mission capabilities. The programs respond to energy and environmental technology requirements across the military services. SERDP and ESTCP are independent DoD programs managed jointly to coordinate the full spectrum of research and development efforts, from the laboratory to field demonstration and validation. For more information, visit Follow us on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn