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Under surveillance

January 1, 2008 By    

The ranch spans 40,000 acres and houses some of the largest deer in Texas. In this state, hunting is a billion-dollar industry.

A 20-pound propane cylinder is used for testing during construction of this mobile prototype.
A 20-pound propane cylinder is used for testing during construction of this mobile prototype.

A ranch owner who spends millions of dollars each year to raise the state’s finest deer becomes protective of his investment. Frank Baker’s lifelong friend is in this position.

“His biggest fear is a poacher,” says Baker, who prefers not to disclose his friend’s identity or the ranch’s location along the Texas-Mexico border.

Acting as a liaison between the ranch and his brother’s company, HBH Gas Systems, Baker suggested a solution to any poaching problems. HBH, Ferrellgas and the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) had been developing a propane-powered surveillance unit, and Baker thought the deer ranch would provide a suitable field-test location.

Before the mobile unit could be created, tests had to be conducted on a ground-mounted model in a remote location.
Before the mobile unit could be created, tests had to be conducted on a ground-mounted model in a remote location.

The project aimed to create a mobile unit, but testing first was needed on a stationary model. The ranch owner liked the unit so much he bought it.

Getting started

Ideas for the surveillance unit first surfaced during conversations between Tony Dale, vice president of business development for Ferrellgas; Harris Baker, president of HBH Gas Systems and Frank’s brother; and Austin, Texas, security firms that were interested in mobile solutions.

The U.S. Border Patrol and the Department of Homeland Security also had expressed the need for a quiet, reliable and durable mobile surveillance unit that could be deployed and unattended for varying periods of time.

“In the course of deciding to work on this project, we investigated whether there would be a market, what is available today and what are the pluses and minuses on those units and would there be an interest,” Dale says. “Our research led us to the conclusion that there would be sufficient interest, and we could fill in some gaps against competitor fuels.”

The generator for the field test runs on two 100-pound propane cylinders.
The generator for the field test runs on two 100-pound propane cylinders.

The companies determined that propane would have the edge over competing power sources such as batteries, gasoline, diesel and solar energy. Batteries produce low power and require replacement and maintenance; gasoline and diesel can run loud, give off high emissions and heat and still must be transported; and solar energy is unreliable.

“You have portability and availability with propane,” Dale says. “You can exchange fuel in the field, or you could take the tanks and unit itself to refueling stations. It gives you options.”

PERC has backed the project by giving Ferrellgas a $27,000 grant – slightly more than half of the project’s total cost – for the design, manufacture and testing of the unit. Ferrellgas has teamed with HBH Gas Systems, which is responsible for the manufacturing and assembling of components.

Before developing the mobile propane-powered surveillance unit, Ferrellgas and HBH first had to ensure that the stationary unit would be functional in the field.

They created a working ground-mounted prototype that was tested last year at the Texas ranch.

Field-test factors

The test netted positive results overall, with the unit’s digital video recorder (DVR) and cameras performing on electricity produced by a propane-powered thermal electric generator, manufactured by Global Thermoelectric of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The generator, about 3 feet high, 1½ feet wide and 2½ feet long, ran on two 100-pound propane cylinders, enabling the DVR and cameras to be extended away from the unit with power cables.

A camera, extended away from the unit, blends into the brush during testing at a remote location. Images are captured by a digital video recorder.
A camera, extended away from the unit, blends into the brush during testing at a remote location. Images are captured by a digital video recorder.

“When you think about converting that into your trailer, you’re bringing everything into itself,” Dale says. “If you can make it work from large distances, you can put it one or two feet away from everything, and logic tells you it will work fine.”

From that field test, which was conducted from February to June, the companies determined which areas required upgrades. The cameras needed better weatherproofing, since they had been affected by water, and they needed better protection in the field. The cameras, which worked off infrared lighting, also were giving off a small red light, detectable to the eye.

“We moved quickly in getting our first prototype in the field and testing it. We learned a lot from that,” Dale says. “Testing it in real-world conditions gives you the feedback you need to make modifications.”

The biggest change with the unit centers on the power supply, with the companies exploring added benefits of a fuel cell. While the thermal electric generator performed well, it weighs 200 pounds, and its high heat signature still allows for detection. The generator burns about three gallons of propane per day and provides 100 watts of electricity per hour. It can operate nonstop for about three months before needing refilled.

The fuel cell, in contrast, is much smaller and lighter (6 to 8 pounds), quieter, more reliable and has a lower heat signature. It burns an ounce of propane per hour, running off a 20-pound propane tank or even a Coleman camping cylinder, and still provides about 60 watts of electricity.

“We’ve got all the components together,” Dale says. “Now it’s just a matter of configuring it on the trailer and hooking up the gas system. We’re hoping in early 2008 to have the fuel-cell model and testing it in the field.”

The trailer will be configured to hold two 20-pound gas grill propane cylinders, with an option to add more. Also, since the unit will be moving to various locations, a fuel supply to last 30 days will be sufficient for most customers, Dale says.

Harris Baker adds, “What we’re looking at right now is taking mobile to a whole other level. The fuel cell is exciting to us because of its vastly superior efficiency and the way it burns propane.”

Future with a fuel cell

The fuel cell, manufactured by Buffalo, N.Y.-based NanoDynamics, provides a platform with great flexibility. Harris Baker describes how it could be incorporated into a military application, where troops could package the fuel cell, cameras and 20-pound barbecue cylinder into a backpack that weighs less than 100 pounds. The unit could run unattended for 60 to 90 days.

“One of our main objectives was to come up with a stable, reliable, remote power platform that will support existing equipment and technology,” Harris Baker says. “We’re not looking to be a security company or integrator. We’re looking to make an available, reliable power source used for any number of applications.”

Other applications include crowd control, traffic control and special-events monitoring. Harris Baker also describes how law enforcement personnel could use the device to monitor meth labs or illegal dumping.

The project also could be developed on a much larger scale, Harris Baker adds, where a fuel cell could provide about 500 watts to 5 kilowatts of electricity. This could power a hunting camp or provide backup power to a small house.

“Ultimately it follows the objectives of PERC,” Dale says of the project. “Maybe what we’ll do is show people who are unfamiliar with propane the options out there – it’s readily available fuel, it’s portable, safe and clean burning – and ideally it expands the market for the whole industry.”

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