State’s new drone fleet to help with investigations, inspections

JACKSON — A federal innovation grant is helping the Wyoming Department of Transportation and Wyoming Highway Patrol launch a statewide drone program.

Lt. Matt Brackin, the Highway Patrol’s first certified pilot, said options are endless for how drones will help in their everyday work.

“From a crash reconstruction standpoint it will be invaluable for us,” Brackin said.

Rather than keeping a highway closed for hours while investigators measure and collect evidence, now they can fly a drone over the scene to capture images and reopen the highway more quickly and continue the investigation elsewhere.

Software can stitch together photos of the scene, allowing investigators to estimate speeds and directions of the vehicles involved.

Because Brackin works in Teton County his drone will also be used for avalanche-related highway work.

Last week he flew from the top of Teton Pass, collecting photos for WYDOT avalanche forecaster Brenden Cronin, who plans to use the pictures for educational presentations related to parking areas at the summit.

Cronin said having access to drones will also save time when it comes to avalanche mitigation.

“If we can’t get up there but we can fly up and see we have a 4-foot crown that goes all the way across Twin (Slides), it will give us an idea of which weak layer it actually failed on,” Cronin said. “Or if it’s just a foot deep we’ll know it’s surface instability.”

Flying a drone above a slide path will be faster and safer than sending avalanche technicians hiking uphill into dangerous terrain.

“If they need a quick check on something to make sure things are working or if there’s a misfire we can fly up there quickly without anyone having to hike up,” Brackin said. “Then we’re all saving time and money.”

Wyoming Highway Patrol Lt. Erik Jorgensen, out of Sheridan, secured $100,000 through a federal grant. He has been working with WYDOT and the University of Wyoming to get the program off the ground.

“I am pretty excited about it,” Jorgensen said. “It’s another tool in the box to help us serve the public.”

Jorgensen said the drones have thermal technology, so if there’s a search mission it can pick up heat signals. They can also be used for bridge or other infrastructure inspections or to assist in serving high-risk warrants and avalanche safety.

“They can check out areas to make sure someone isn’t still skiing in the trees before they let off avalanche mitigation,” Jorgensen said.

WYDOT’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems program manager, Sheri Taylor, who is based in Cheyenne, said she formed a task force and hired a consultant to start the program and figure out operating procedures and best practices.

The grant money helped buy nine drones, which are with Highway Patrol districts around the state that are finishing up their certifications in the next month or so.

Taylor said each mission flown by WYDOT or Highway Patrol must be approved before flight. They also save all missions in case the Federal Aviation Administration needs the information.

“We go through all these processes,” she said. “For pre-flight plans we’re looking at possible obstacles, weather conditions, wind conditions, people, and even buildings nearby. There is a whole list of different things as a pilot ... you want to be sure you’re practicing the ultimate safety.”

Taylor said most departments of transportation in the U.S. are using drones now. Some states have mature, robust programs they’ve had in place for years. Others, like Wyoming, are just getting to know and starting to use the technology.

Brackin’s drone can fly in winds up to 26 mph, which is crucial for high altitude flying. He added that it can also serve as backup to help Teton County Search and Rescue on missions.

“We’re ready, willing and able to help if they need more drones in the air,” he said.

Teton County has a drone that’s shared among Teton County Search and Rescue, the Teton County Sheriff’s Office and Jackson Hole Fire/EMS. The Sheriff’s Office also has a smaller drone it will use for more basic functions like taking aerial photos of a scene.

The digital forensics examiner for the Sheriff’s Office, Dustin Richards, said the county is working to get a certificate of authorization to fly at night for emergencies.

Their bigger drone has a FLIR — forward-looking infrared — camera on it, which enables night vision flying and heat indicators that can pick up someone’s body heat during a search or hot spots at a fire scene, he said.

They’re also looking at certain accessories that would expand what the drones can do, Richards said.

“The big drone we have — it can carry 5 pounds so we could drop off blankets or food for someone,” Richards said. “It’s like a remote control hook so you can hook a bag to it. We haven’t purchased it yet, but that’s one of the things we’re looking at doing with it. We have some hopes and dreams for its use.”

The county’s drones were used to take photos of the August 2020 hot air balloon crash site. Richards said they flew over to get photos of the scene, saving them as evidence for the investigation.

They also flew at the New Year’s Eve site of a standoff at an apartment complex with a stabbing suspect who was barricaded inside an apartment.

“We were able to document the crime scene and see where everyone was positioned,” Richards said.

For agencies responsible for public safety, using drones to do jobs that a fixed-wing plane or helicopter was needed for before is key to saving money and being as efficient as possible.

“The sky’s the limit,” Jorgensen said.