UK cities fly drones to battle a surge in illegal trash dumping

drones illegal dumping

In recent months UAVs have been deployed in many new types of critical missions around the globe – from ferrying medical equipment and treatments to remote destinations to flying vital organs to hospitals for immediate transplanting. Now, several municipalities in the UK have found another urgent use for drones: helping police spot and crack down on people illegally dumping their trash and unwanted junk in public places.

The UK’s garbage-focused drone application seeks to battle a spiking outbreak of illegal trash dumping – known as fly-tipping – across England that has coincided with the Covid pandemic. According to national media reports, the surging dump-and-run phenomenon has risen 16% over the past year, generating 1.1 million official complaints – and a proliferating rat population. The problem began about a half-decade ago when national austerity policies sapped local government resources, leading to cuts in all kinds of public services, including regular litter collection. But the surge has been markedly stronger since Covid came to call.

To battle the scourge, several UK cities are turning to drones to help police spot and identify furtive litter louts doing the illegal dumping.

The most recent municipality to take to the skies to keep its alleys, side streets, parks, streams, and open fields clear of fly-tipping refuse is Sunderland, situated southeast of Newcastle. Local officials say there have been over 2,500 cases of illegal junk and trash dumping reported between August and October alone. With offenders often acting too fast or selecting remote areas to unload their garbage, Sunderland authorities decided to take the innovative step of putting UAV eyes in the sky to assist them.

“A lot of the fly-tippers are very clever and go to hidden places, but our drones can go to those places as well,” Sunderland assistant director of community resilience, Sandra Mitchell, was quoted explaining in several UK publications. “We will start to use drones which will be really important for getting to areas that staff can’t get to in terms of fly-tipping.”

Sunderland is now training three pilots to fly drone missions against illegal dumping infractions, and is only the most recent city to do so. Similar UAV programs have been launched in Rugby, Warwickshire, Wigan, and the Greater Manchester area to monitor fly-tipping hotspots. 

With craft used for that surveillance costing over $6,620 a pop – and pilot training just as steep – many budget-strapped municipalities have avoided taking to the air until it becomes financially compelling to do so. That economic logic has now been reached, and then some.

According to a probe by the Mirror, cases of fly-tripping have surged by over 500% in some areas, which has in turn aided the nation’s rat population to explode to over 30 million. Nearly half of the country’s farmers say they’ve found trash or junk dumped on their property. Elsewhere, entire trailer homes – themselves reduced to rolling junk – have been stuffed with garbage and left along roads, in fields, or anywhere else owners can unhitch them and speed away. There are also reports of construction companies and other businesses needing to dispose of refuse cheaply paying locals to haul off and toss it as they see fit – no questions asked.

With average weekly fly-tipping reporting rates across the UK now exceeding 20,000 per week, the Mirror estimates it will cost local, regional, and national authorities over $6.6 million – every year – to clean up the mess.

With those figures rising all the time, a six grand price tag for a drone capable of dissuading illegal dumping – and improving the odds offenders will be caught – no longer seems all that expensive. In fact, given recent evolution in fly-tipping, it seems downright cost-effective.

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