San Francisco’s Drone-Powered Battle Against Illegal Dumping

In San Francisco's bustling neighborhoods, illegal dumpers operate under the cover of darkness, thinking no one sees them. However, Chula Camps, the proprietor of Dogfork Lamp Arts, has been observing the careless discarding of waste around her business space for a decade.

“It's frustrating because it doesn't look good for our business,” Camps expressed.

Her concern mirrors that of many in District 10, who have long been frustrated with the mounting garbage problem and have been crying out for surveillance cameras.

Rachel Gordon, a spokesperson from the San Francisco Department of Public Works (DPW), mentioned that while surveillance cameras are being reviewed, the city has plans for an eye in the sky. She revealed that a novel drone initiative, coupled with (AI), is on the horizon, focusing on notorious dumping zones.

Enter Brian Johnson, the brains behind this innovative solution. The Bayview local and founder of the startup, Aerbits, spent years developing a drone-powered method to combat this urban issue after he grew concerned about the garbage obstructing his children's scooter paths.

“I found that it was really stressful,” he recalled. Motivated, he combined his engineering skills and a drone to create a system. “I went up with the drone, and within two weeks I had trained a little model that kinda worked,” Johnson shared.

Johnson observed that existing data, like the 311 report, didn't quite capture the real magnitude of the problem, especially in areas like the Bayview. He argued that traditional reporting methods, like photograph submissions to the 311 app, might not always lead city resources efficiently to the most problematic zones.

San Francisco'S Drone-Powered Battle Against Illegal Dumping

Johnson's solution? His drone. With its 35-minute flights, the drone captures images of the trash heaps, and, post-flight, an AI analyzes the data in under an hour. This fast turnaround offers a more efficient and effective way of reporting.

“I've labeled 12,000 piles of garbage,” Johnson claimed, according to The San Francisco Standard, adding that he noticed a substantial decrease in the size and number of trash piles with consistent monitoring.

Privacy concerns? Johnson has addressed them. Images from the drone flights ensure personal data like houses or vehicles are obscured. This initiative has garnered interest from other cities too, with Oakland, San Jose, and Alameda County considering similar strategies.

Commencing after budget finalizations in August, Johnson's pilot program will feature two daily drone flights across Bayview and Mission for a three-month span. The hope is that even if it doesn't prevent illegal dumping outright, it will provide invaluable data to guide the city's cleanup strategies.

On the future of the drone program, Gordon was optimistic, mentioning that if the pilot proves effective, it could become a permanent feature in the city's fight against illegal waste disposal.

“We always are looking for innovative ways to combat the scourge of trash on our streets,” Gordon stated.

Chula Camps remains hopeful. She wishes for not just cleaner streets but also for increased public awareness. In her words, whether resident or business owner, “If we see something, we should say something.”

Photos courtesy of Brian Johnson / Aerbits


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Haye Kesteloo
Haye Kesteloo

Haye Kesteloo is the Editor in Chief and Founder of DroneXL.co, where he covers all drone-related news, DJI rumors and writes drone reviews, and EVXL.co, for all news related to electric vehicles. He is also a co-host of the PiXL Drone Show on YouTube and other podcast platforms. Haye can be reached at haye @ dronexl.co or @hayekesteloo.

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