Mobile inspections, remote inspections, unmanned aerial systems, artificial intelligence and machine learning and integrated solutions can serve as force multipliers for the environmental enforcement community.
Everyone wants to live and raise a family in an environment where the air is clean and the water is free of harmful pollutants. Federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration work closely with state, municipal and tribal partners to monitor compliance with environmental regulations and take enforcement actions when they identify compliance issues. Environmental enforcement agencies are charged with monitoring more than 40 million U.S. facilities—from large, privately owned industrial campuses to municipal wastewater treatment plants and even local farms.
While environmental enforcement efforts are critical to human health and environmental safety, the sheer number of facilities and scope of the oversight required makes enforcement inherently challenging. At the same time, many enforcement organizations often lack the technology assets required to effectively manage their fundamental activities. In many cases, field inspectors still use pen and paper to collect information, experts rely upon human-generated spreadsheets to track information and manually analyze data and mobile inspection capabilities are often limited to simple electronic data collection, meaning inspectors must still create reports manually. Lack of easy, digital access to findings from past inspections means regulatory agents may spend hours conducting painstaking analysis—time that they could be using to inspect more facilities.
With the increased focus on climate change and environmental justice, it’s even more critical that environmental regulators have the technology they require to do their jobs effectively. The following five technology priorities can serve as force multipliers for the environmental enforcement community.
1. Mobile inspections. Mobile inspection apps can eliminate manual, paper-intensive, desk-dependent data entry and access. Agencies employing advanced mobile solutions have seen marked productivity improvements of 50% or more for core inspection functions.
Smartphones and tablets allow inspectors to capture inspection results directly into the record with associated photo and video evidence as well as geo-referenced data. When data is compiled digitally at the source, inspectors can readily generate corrective action reports to be reviewed with the facility at the conclusion of the inspection. Faster reporting can lead to faster corrective action. Inspectors further benefit when they can access data from prior inspections directly in the field. With digital access to historical records, inspectors can be more targeted in their efforts, pinpoint high-risk areas and work more efficiently.
2. Remote inspections. COVID moved many government inspection processes from in-person to remote. Increasingly, agencies are introducing workflows that allow inspectors to conduct collaborative virtual inspections via online meeting tools. Using video calls with facility managers, inspectors can collect data into the record, capture images in real time and gain further insights into facility performance, just as they would in person.
The move to remote inspections also allows enforcement agencies to better target inspector assignments based upon expertise. Experts in another state could join a virtual, remote inspection to provide further insights or advise on remediation activities. Facilities also benefit when remote inspection processes allow them to upload documents or proof of compliance in real-time, avoiding the need to manually send data to other systems or exchange documentation.
3. Unmanned aerial systems. UAS technology allows environmental enforcement agencies to collect data from remote locations. The use of UAS, such as drones and small unmanned aircraft, enable swifter and safer response to emergencies. In some cases, drones can be more cost-effective than in-person inspections or other aerial methods. In situations where an agency seeks to monitor a site over time, such as targeted environmental justice sites, the return on drone investment can be significant, empowering regulators and researchers with data that previously would have been cost-prohibitive to collect with the same degree of frequency.
Proofs of concept leveraging UAS and drones have been gaining traction in the environmental space, with agencies citing use cases for emergency preparedness and response, monitoring, mapping and inspections in a 2021 Environmental Council of the States report entitled State Environmental Agency Modernization — Leveraging Unmanned Aerial Systems to Improve Environmental Results. As UAS programs mature, agencies are also looking to integrate them with internet-of-things solutions, such as thermal/infrared sensors to provide greater insights into changes in a geography as a result of forest fires, other natural disasters and climate change.
4. Artificial intelligence and machine learning. Today, inspections are routinely scheduled as a result of evidence of a possible violation, in response to a citizen or employee complaint, or due to other factors such as time elapsed since last inspection. A risk-based, data-driven model, powered by AI could replace, or augment, this reactive approach.
Tapping into the wealth of information available in past inspection reports, photos and videos, satellite images and sensor data, enforcement agencies could apply AI and ML to identify trends and prioritize inspection activities according to risk. By combining data from various sources—such as air sensor data and satellite imagery—inspectors can proactively identify potential non-compliance that requires human follow-up. AI-based complexity scoring can assist agencies in assigning the most appropriate personnel to a given inspection or investigation.
5. Tailored, integrated solutions. While new technology investments can deliver significant gains in productivity, mobile apps, remote inspection capabilities, UAS and AI/ML investments are just the beginning. Environmental enforcement agencies must continue to evolve their IT solutions to more tightly integrate their end-to-end enforcement business processes. The biggest barrier to scaling the use of data across the enforcement process is a lack of integration between permitting, enforcement and compliance systems. To harness the power of data, systems must be more tightly integrated, with a seamless workflow between connected systems
As agencies look to modernize their IT solutions, they should incorporate capabilities that will provide historical data across core business processes to inspectors on the edge, even when they are in remote locations and their mobile devices are offline. When inspectors and enforcement personnel are empowered with data-driven insights, they can spend less time focused on data collection and more time focused on problem solving.
Greg Slusher is project lead/senior consultant at CGI Federal. Vivek Mehta is founder and CEO of ARInspect