Drones have exited spy movies or the science fiction world and entered reality, and a few local drone owners are beginning to take the aircraft into the sky with a new and quickly growing sport.
The Pacific Northwest International Drone Racing Association Drone Nationals Qualifier on July 16 at Camp Fraley Ranch southeast of Bend is the first ever national drone racing event here . The qualifier will host up to 60 drone racers.
In drone racing, a sport quickly growing in popularity, a person flies a drone with a controller and wears a headset called a first-person viewer that shows the drone operator what the craft is doing.
The goggle-like headset streams a live-feed video recording from the drone of where it is racing, with the goal to finish a track as quickly as possible and gain the most points, local drone racer Jaren Morris said. Each track has a series of “gates,” a half-circle loop a drone must fly through, and “flags” indicating an turn.
Morris, 26, said he has been flying drones recreationally for two years but did not get serious about drone racing until December.
The race here will qualify five drone pilots for the second annual U.S. National Drone Racing Championships in New York later this year, Justin Healy, a local coordinator for the qualifier, said Friday. The top five pilots who win the national event in New York will earn a spot on the U.S. team to compete internationally.
The Pacific Northwest nationals is just one of 19 qualifying events for the national race and was a challenge to put together, but Healy, 45, said he has been working with outside organizations, such as the Academy of Model Aeronautics and SOAR Oregon, which support traditional model airplanes and the use of unmanned aircraft systems.
“To have one (race) in our backyard is cool, especially since this is the first year, and we can continue to have it as an annual thing,” he said. “For now we’re trying to get something that works right for the first time, and we’re getting everything together quickly.”
Healy said the course in Bend will be a winding, 1-kilometer-long track with a few gates and flags. Each pilot will compete in three rounds of 20 “heats,” or races consisting of five participants per heat. Pilots who miss a gate will be disqualified.
The drone community
Morris said he has been preparing for Bend’s qualifier by practicing his ability to control turns in close quarters and flying through small areas. If a drone crashes during a race, most of the time the pilot can repair the aircraft before the next heat, but others are not so lucky.
“Hopefully it’s a fast fix,” he said. “Hopefully they have a second aircraft or some sort of backup. Heats have to keep moving, and if they’re not ready that’s sort of the way the cookie crumbles, and you’re out. Sometimes you can get into a heat towards the end of day. In the off chance, somebody might let you fly theirs. I really can’t say enough about this sport and its community.”
The drone racing community in Bend has only about 10 people, but Morris said he is working on expanding it and wants to include female drone racers, which are uncommon.
“Primarily it’s a male-based sport,” he said. “All of us would like to see that change because there are very few females doing this. I don’t know why. It would definitely be cooler to diversify it more. I think it’s kind of like a ‘boys and toys’ kind of thing. It doesn’t even have to be about racing.”
A “bottom-range” drone race package costs about $500 and includes a drone, an FPV headset, a controller, batteries and a battery charger. Morris, who said it is possible to find sponsorships, is sponsored by Xhover and Team RaceKraft, two companies that make drone supplies and provide him frames and propellers for his drone.
“Social media is what plays the largest role in this sport right now,” he said. “(Sponsorship) companies are looking for people who put themselves out there and market themselves and can also build relationships with the community.”
Racers fly their lightweight drones low to the ground and generally do not have the highest-quality camera, Morris said. He hopes the racing event next month will help show people a positive side of drones that they do not experience enough.
Rules and regulations
“We don’t want people going out and doing stupid stuff,” he said. “It’s really tough — the regulations thing is fine, but the (Federal Aviation Administration) doesn’t have power to enforce any regulations and we would like to advance how to properly go about flying these things so that regulations don’t hurt the hobby and bring attention to fact that they aren’t used for spying. I think that will happen once people see what we can see through the goggles.”
The FAA requires all unmanned aircraft users to register their drones weighing between 0.55 and 55 pounds, according to its website. Healy, who flies drones professionally for mapmaking, said he has been using the unmanned aircraft for three years and considers it the safest one ever invented.
“Many people who think drones are unsafe are people who’ve never flown a drone before,” he said. “I think the anonymity of it is what is most bothering to people because you don’t necessarily know who is flying it.”
The qualifier in Bend begins at 8:30 a.m. and lasts until late in the day and will also have food trucks. Healy said the event is expected to attract drone racers from Seattle and Eugene, and it is open to all spectators.
“The event is geared towards spectators,” he said. “There are viewing areas close to the track, but race safety is the first priority of any drone flying. I can’t actually stress that enough.”
— Reporter: 541-382-01811,
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected. In the original version, Team RaceKraft was misspelled.
The Bulletin regrets the error.