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.