As federal, state, and local agencies continue to respond to the damage and flooding wrought by Hurricane Harvey in Texas, as well as neighboring Louisiana, one of the more contentious questions has been the danger posed to communities by heavily polluted sites within the disaster zone. As part of its response, the Environmental Protection Agency has deployed the unique Airborne Spectral Photometric Environmental Collection Technology surveillance aircraft, which can spot chemical and radiological material from the air, to help assess the situation.
More commonly known by the acronym ASPECT, contractor owned and operated system is configured to collect chemical and radiological information, as well as both color visual and infrared imagery. EPA has had it on call for more than a decade, sending it out in the past to either actively monitor disasters, including the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, or be ready in the event of an emergency during a major public event, such as multiple presidential inaugurations, Super Bowls, and other large gatherings.
“ASPECT is the nation’s only airborne real-time chemical and radiological detection, infrared and photographic imagery platform,” EPA says on its website. “ASPECT is available to assist local, national, and international agencies supporting hazardous substance response, radiological incidents, and situational awareness.”
Similar to many military intelligence and reconnaissance aircraft, the APSECT aircraft carries a wide-angle mapping camera and an infrared line scanner that can create thermal imagery of the ground below as the plane flies along. Analysts can put the basic color images together form even larger maps of a specific area, well.
In addition, EPA’s surveillance aircraft has less common gamma ray and multi-spectral chemical spectrometers. This allows the crew to collect information about spreading hazards that may not be visible to the human eye. The chemical sensor can help determine what compounds are present and how densely they’re concentrated in the air. The Department of Energy also has aircraft for mapping radiological incidents, in particular a small fleet of Bell 412 helicopters specifically outfitted for the role. But these aircraft lack the ability to keep tabs on other toxic chemicals that may be airborne and they don’t have ASPECT’s multi-spectral imaging capabilities. From the EPA’s website:
“The National Nuclear Security Administration, part of the Department of Energy, does operate the Aerial Measuring System. However, this only collects radiological data in real time, while ASPECT provides a multi-sensor capability.”
Initially, the contractor used a twin engine Aero Commander 690, seen in the video below, to carry all of these systems. This eventually gave way to a simpler and cheaper to operate Cessna C208B Grand Cavaran, which is the present platform. As of April 2014, it cost EPA $1,500 per flight hour to operate the ASPECT Cessna.