Drone helps keep spring training fans safe from COVID-19 in Surprise

The City of Surprise did a different kind of spring cleaning ahead of this year's spring training season, and the idea came from an unlikely source.

Springtime, for the City of Surprise, is oftentimes its busiest, with sounds of retirement being replaced by tourists and snowbirds, and thousands of baseball fans.

The West Valley city's stadium is home to two Cactus League teams: The Kansas City Royals and the Texas Rangers. Everything changed, however, in March 2020, with Spring Training cancelled after just a few weeks, and the entire 2020 MLB season postponed because of COVID-19.

The ongoing pandemic meant that spring 2021 would look and feel a lot different. Travis Ashby, City of Surprise's Sports and Tourism Supervisor, has been overseeing the safety and security of Surprise Stadium fans for more than eight years. He and his team have spent the past 12 months trying to find the best way to make sure each and every fan feels comfortable coming back.

"Every time we're learning something new about the pandemic and the virus and the new CDC guidelines, we've had to adapt and move as an organization to try and accommodate those needs," said Ashby.

That meant limiting capacity for the 2021 spring training season. Instead of 10,000 screaming fans, the stadium is only hosting about 2,000 for each game.

"Limited capacity, physically distance pods. We have increased a lot of our cleaning protocols, reduced touchpoints, and cashless transactions, so anything we can do to make things as safe as we can for our community," said City of Surprise Sports and Tourism Director Kendra Pettis.

Like many stadiums around the Cactus League, Surprise was exploring new ways to clean and sanitize every aspect of their ballpark, and that's when they turned to an unlikely ally who is sitting in their dugout: Texas Rangers coach and former Arizona State University Sun Devil Don Wakamatsu.

Wakamatsu spent the last three decades in the major leagues as both a player and coach. In his spare time, he founded the WakWay Foundation, a nonprofit aimed at helping America's next generation of farmers.

When Wakamatsu heard Surprise was looking for new ways to sanitize their stadium, he pitched to them the idea of using drones in the same way he was using them at his grandparents' farm in Oregon.

"When I was a kid, they used to, by plane, spray the orchards. We're thinking about using a drone to spray, and they said obviously, the technology right now is flight time and capacity," Wakamatsu said. "The drones will not work in bigger larger mass scale farms. They can't cover enough they can't spray enough."

Wakamatsu and his team at Farm-i-tude settled on smaller drones to spray smaller areas.

At Surprise Stadium, a T-16 drone that is referred to as "Paul" takes part in the sanitizing efforts. The agricultural drone from DJI is capable of holding several liters of disinfectant that is sprayed across the seats and handrails.

The sanitizing solution is called Microsure. Wakamatsu describes it as a non-toxic way to protect people from COVID and other infectious diseases.

"They had a 20-year history of being in hospital operating rooms," said Wakamatsu. "They use the Microsure to spray the Denver Broncos players. It's almost, for lack of a better term, food-grade."

The same idea has been used at other stadiums and venues around the country, including inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. In Surprise, it takes about 90 minutes to effectively spray and disinfect the entire area, and the barrier lasts anywhere from 30 to 60 days.

While it doesn't replace traditional hand cleaning, city officials believe it gives them an extra layer of protection, while making the process more efficient and cost-effective.

"Just being able to cover that amount of space in just a couple of hours, as opposed to someone going through by hand, covering every seat, is just a lot more efficient," said Ashby.

"We've been lucky to work with the Cactus League, both the Rangers and Royals and the MLB, to find creative ways to make fans feel comfortable and safe, and really make it a place where fans want to come back and enjoy baseball," said Pettis.

City officials are still deciding whether or not to bring back the drone for spring 2022.

The WakWay Foundation