Pollution China 2012
A thermoelectric power plant belches smoke from its chimneys in Ningbo Port, Zhejiang province. Reuters

As China continues its battle against pollution, regulators are turning to modern technology to hold the country’s biggest polluters accountable, in the form of drones. The use of drones will help supplement China’s existing monitoring system, whose easy evasion by polluters has drawn criticism.

According to financial news site Caixin, local officials in China’s northeast Heilongjiang province have begun using drones to monitor rural areas where straw burning, a common source of air pollution in the area, is popular. The effort has seen some success. China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection has used drones to fly over the nation’s steel mills, refineries and power plants to gather accurate emissions readings and determine violations. Last month, the ministry announced it had penalized several industrial companies thanks to information collected through drones.

As drone technology becomes more affordable and accessible, environmental officials in other locales have begun adopting the tool as a way to clamp down on rampant emissions violations. The ineffectiveness of China’s current multibillion-yuan pollution monitoring system is largely due to the fabrication of data provided by factories. Experts say drones equipped with sensors using spectroscopic technology will provide regulators with real-time hard evidence to counter data fraudulence. These sensors can collect samples of pollutants and detect changes in water quality and air quality.

“Using aerial photography, we can see whether there is dark smoke coming from a chimney,” Xie Tao, vice president of the Institute of Resources and Environment Science, a Beijing-based environmental consultancy agency, told news outlet Caixin. “Problems can be quickly detected from images taken by drones.”

Xu Jianchao, one of Liaoning province’s environmental inspection officials, thinks drones should be adopted more widely in the nation because they aren’t hampered by geographical conditions in the way a human inspector is. Xu said that the mobility of drones allows them to cover a wider area in a shorter period in a cost-effective way that human beings cannot match.