1:02 pm
Wed February 26, 2014

WFU Drone Aircraft Provides a New Look at the Duke Energy Coal Ash Spill

A team of researchers and students at Wake Forest University are providing a new view of the Duke Energy coal ash spill in Rockingham County.

Miles Silman (left), and Max Messinger (right) are part of the research team at Wake Forest University who created a drone to monitor and collect data from the coal ash spill in Eden, North Carolina.
Credit Keri Brown

They created a drone aircraft to capture aerial images of the company’s coal ash pond.  On February 7, they attached two cameras to take high resolution images and video of the spill. Miles Silman, a biology professor at the university, explains how the technology helped create a 3D model of the coal ash impoundment.

Miles Silman describes how the drone aircraft was used to monitor the Duke Energy coal ash pond after the spill.

Silman says researchers used Google images of the coal ash pond before the spill to make the comparisons and calculations. They estimate that 16 to 20 million gallons of ash and water spilled out of the pond on Feb. 2, with up to 15 million gallons being released in subsequent days.

A video of their high-resolution model depicts where ash washed out from the pond basin and where the water line was when the pond emptied.

Max Messinger is a biology graduate student who built the drone for the project. He used foam and other simple materials to make the airplane. It has a six feet wing span and weighs about eight pounds. Messinger says his team wanted to provide an independent, third party assessment of the spill.

He would like to see drones like his used to monitor similar incidents in the future.  

"WFU graduate student Max Messinger says man-made drones are an inexpensive way to monitor industrial accident sites. He explains how the technology is providing an independent, unbiased look at the amount of coal ash that leaked into the Dan River.

Silman says his research team at Wake Forest University has released all of their observations and data from the coal ash pond to Duke Energy. The information has also been released to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Resources, the Southern Environmental Law Center, The North Carolina River Keepers, and the Dan River Basin Association.