- Associated Press - Saturday, June 25, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Five mini drones whiz around in the sky, making a high-pitched whir as their neon orange and green propellers lift them off the ground and around a racing course marked out by orange cones on the ground below.

As they turn around each corner they’re dodging trees, looping through man-made hoops and maneuvering around the other racers.

Below is a flock of lawn chairs, occupied by 10 or 15 people wearing big, bug-eyed goggles that make them look like they should be on a ski slope. But they’re not for snow — they’re virtual reality goggles. From their perspective, this race track appears almost like a video game.

As the clock ticks down, racers try to squeeze in as many laps as they can before time is up. Playful smack talk is thrown about as each “pilot” claims that they will be the one to come out on top.

At one point, the leading drone flies into an obstacle, and its controller’s goggles go from a clear view of the course to black and white fuzz, like an old TV.

“Oh, crap!” he shouts, running to the spot where his drone crash landed in the grass.

The group — on Facebook as Nebraska Drone Racing — meets a couple of times a month to race. The group even has fans who come out to support their favorite racer.

Each drone has a small camera attached that relays a signal to the goggles, giving the controller the perception of being inside the drone. In the drone world this is known as first person view.

“It’s a rush,” said Ryan Meints, one of the group’s administrators. “It’s like an out-of-body experience that makes you feel like you’re flying. You can fly 70 mph, go up 50 feet, do flips.”

The Lincoln Journal Star (https://dmreg.co/28KrFZc ) reports that each race follows a format, with five drones racing per heat. Instead of timed races, success is based on how many laps around the course the drone can complete in two minutes.

While most races are solely for earning points on multigp.com and setting up a rank within the group, there are some qualifying races that allow some racers to move on to more competitive races. A regional competition will be held at the Kansas Speedway next month.

Nebraska Drone Racing’s founder, Zack Christopherson, bought his first drone about a year and a half ago. He enjoyed it so much that he began researching more drones, and built his own racer just a few months later. Shortly following, he created the Facebook group to find other drone junkies to race with.

“Flying by yourself is fun for a little while, but it’s more fun to beat other people,” Christopherson said.

Meints said he first heard about the group when he was selling a drone part on Craigslist, and Christopherson asked him to come join the next race.

“Ever since, I’ve been hooked,” Meints said.

The third administrator, Jared Vakoc, found the group on Facebook and initially messaged Christopherson for tips on building his own mini drone. Now, he enjoys coming out to race every month.

“It’s the closest I’ll ever be to being a pilot,” Vakoc said.

Anybody can join Nebraska Drone Racing, but only experienced flyers are allowed to race, for safety reasons.

When inexperienced people join, Christopherson said, they have them begin racing without the FVP simulator. Oftentimes the virtual reality effect can be disorienting and dizzying, so getting the hang of maneuvering the drone is the first step.

“We love to help the new guys and get their builds started,” Vakoc said.

Along with the flying aspect, another element to flying drones is drone maintenance. Sometimes parts break or fail. Crashing into trees or other drones also inflicts damage.

“You have to learn a lot of electronics and engineering,” Meints said. “That’s probably 75 percent of the hobby, just trying to keep your stuff working.”

The group, which has more than 120 members, is looking for a new race location. For a year or so, racers have met on University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s East Campus.

Saturday’s race was the last on East Campus after UNL released regulations requiring unmanned aircraft operators get permission before flying. Christopherson and Meints are scouring the city to find a new, secluded area to race.

While none of the participants have a drone-based career, they have each found a passion for FVP racing.

“We just want to have fun and build a community doing this,” he added. “We’re not looking to make a living off of this, it’s a hobby. We want to have a good time.”


Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, https://www.journalstar.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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