Drones may be what lets baseball fans back into the ballpark

Iowa company wants to sanitize baseball stadiums with drones.

The start of summer in America is usually a time for peanuts and Cracker Jacks, of thousands of fans cheering the crack of a bat at the ballpark on a warm, sunny afternoon. But 2020 is going to be a summer unlike any other.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to surge across the country, ballparks stand empty as large public gatherings have been forbidden. Even when Major League Baseball returns to the field next month, it will be in spectator-less stadiums. The loss of revenue from ticket sales, concessions, and parking is going to be a significant financial hit to ballclubs and precipitated the long, drawn-out negotiations between MLB and the Players Association that only ended on Tuesday.

Clubs will be looking to get fans back into the seats as quickly as possible, but to do so they’re going to have to change how people attend games. Temperature checks may be required at the gate. Seating may be staggered, with certain rows left empty to promote social distancing. And common-touch surfaces like handrails and armrests will have to be cleaned regularly.

Rantizo, an agricultural-spraying company based out of Iowa City, Iowa, has a solution to help clubs do that as efficiently, quickly and cheaply as possible. Their plan is to use drones to spray chemicals that kill COVID-19.

“We’re a drone-spraying company,” says CEO Michael Ott. “We’re spraying a chemical that kills the coronavirus and 99.999 percent of all other viruses and bacteria. So we can use that technology to sanitize stadiums, especially big, open areas that are hard to reach. Harder for a large crew to go in and sanitize. We do that autonomously with a drone rather than hiring 25 people to get fully kitted up in PPE and walk around with backpack sprayers, going back and forth, back and forth in the stadium.”

The drones are programmed to remain at a certain height throughout the stadium, following the slope of the seats. When the spray runs out, the drone returns to its base to be refilled before automatically remembering where it left off and returning to that area. Videos of the drones in action show how they can detect obstacles like walls and guardrails and move out of the way. It’s cost-efficient and doesn’t require the labor-intensive effort to clean stadiums that would’ve ordinarily been necessary.

“One, we don’t require as many people to do it. It’s generally one operator…so it’s a lot cheaper and less exposure from a labor perspective,” Ott says. “We can do it at any time. If you’ve got a Tuesday night game, we can get in Wednesday morning, do it relatively quickly, and you can be ready for your Wednesday afternoon game.”

“It’s autonomous. You don’t have to worry about all the liability with people coming in and out, all the exposure from a couple of dozen people being there. It’s just a much safer way to go about it.”

Ott says his company has already been in discussion with teams in all four major sports leagues in America and with several major college football programs. They were nearing a deal with an MLB team and have already demonstrated their technology in minor league ballparks.

“Our major goal is to get people back to normalcy,” he says. “Where they can get out to the stadium, have a hot dog and a beer, see a sporting event live. That’s one of our big pushes.”

Within the next month, the MLB season will finally get started. The NBA is preparing to enter a bubble at Walt Disney World in Orlando to finish their season. The NHL is looking at two hub cities for their playoffs. And the NFL is grappling with whether they’ll have to begin without fans in the stadiums or delay the start of the season.

If teams want fans to come back, they’ll have to make sure people feel safe being in a crowd of people again. They’ll have to be innovative and seek different solutions to common problems. How a stadium is cleaned and sanitized is something most fans never see and don’t think much about. That’s all changed in 2020.