Deep in a hazy white cloud of water vapor, a solitary firefighter slipped in and out of view to attendees at the Deseret UAS hazmat and drones workshop program Tuesday afternoon.
The obscuring cloud was created by releasing frigid liquid nitrogen from a tanker truck. While the firefighter was sometimes difficult to see with the naked eye, there were other optics tracking him throughout. As many as four drones were airborne at once, using thermal imaging to keep a lock on his position despite the cold temperatures and white, fluffy impediment.
Earlier in the demonstration, the test site was filled with the distinct odor of leaking propane. The drones also managed to identify the source of the released gas.
On Tuesday, first responders from the local area and around the country were on hand to observe the drone test and get a better idea how the unmanned aerial craft can assist in hazmat situations. The host facility was the Tekoi Test Range, with access obtained via an agreement between Deseret UAS and the Skull Valley Band of Goshute, which own the property. Deseret UAS, a nonprofit joint venture of Tooele and Box Elder counties, is working to attract unmanned aerial system businesses to both counties.
There were 85 individuals representing first responders, private industry reps and government officials registered to attend the testing and seminars, according to Muriel Xochimitl, Deseret UAS communications director.
Xochimitl said the Skull Valley Band of Goshute facility, located off state Route 196 south of Iosepa, was a great place for the exercises, hosted in conjunction with the Utah State Fire Marshal.
“We think that it’s a logical partnership to look at ways to leverage these existing assets in a different way with a nascent, fast growing industry that will be, really, the way of the future,” she said.
The open air testing of propane and nitrogen met the intent of the workshop, according to Deputy State Fire Marshal Ryan Putnam. He said the next step for the drone industry is for the technology to meet all of the needs of fire agencies, such as integrated sensors and payloads.
“I think it’s just going to increase and a lot of it’s going to be based on technology catching up with what we want it to do,” Putnam said.
While there are some commercial drones with integrated radiation and chemical sensors, the cost is still too high for fire departments, according to Putnam. For now, most drones used by fire crews are borrowed from search and rescue crews or the municipality’s GIS department.
The workshop was the kind of event, especially with the number of private vendors and interested parties, which Deseret UAS was created to provide.
The Deseret UAS facility in Box Elder County is for initial testing, to prove a conceptual drone is flightworthy and meets expected battery performance and other factors, according to Tooele County Commissioner Shawn Milne. The Tooele County facility provides outdoor training space, open air space and a remote location for testing and tuning the software and hardware, both in the drone and for on-the-ground communications equipment.
The process to take a drone from concept through initial testing to a final product takes several years, Milne said. Deseret UAS is already looking at longer term storage for drones than originally anticipated.
Storage is especially useful for companies with large drones, such as those intended to move multiple people, as transporting the equipment can be difficult, according to Milne. There are benefits to longer term tenants, too, even if testing bays remain locked up by one client for longer.
“That’s part of what Box Elder County and Tooele County want because when those engineers and those pilots — those professionals — are there for long periods of time, that’s what’s going to stimulate our economy and become the job base,” Milne said. “So that’s what gets us really excited. So we’re happy to promote that.”
The Tekoi Test Range requires less rigorous security requirements for entry than the Box Elder County facility or Dugway Proving Ground, but still provides a remote place to test with plenty of airspace away from prying eyes. Milne said Tooele County has a skilled workforce that understands the required privacy as high-tech drone concepts become a reality.
While hazmat situations were the focus of testing this week, Milne said drones will be more prolific in the coming years in a variety of different ways. He said in addition to the lifesaving possibilities working with first responders, drones could be used to make bridge inspections and other tasks easier and quicker.
“The intention is to save taxpayers’ money and make it safer,” Milne said.
Deseret UAS was founded in 2018 with the help of a $1.2 million grant from the state of Utah. For more about the nonprofit corporation, visit deseretuas.org.