Drone racers are being launched into the big money world of pro sports. ESPN will again cover the 2017 Drone Racing League (DRL) championship to be held at London's Alexandra Palace. The race has big-dollar backing from German insurance heavyweight Allianz.
But, there’s one universal problem, for sponsored pilots and newbies alike: there’s nowhere to train.
Minneapolis resident Simon “MartyFlyzZz” Cheng has a sponsorship deal with Texas-based drone maker Catalyst Machineworks and recently ranked 19th at the Sebring Drone Race in Florida (among 120 pilots.) He can make a lightweight quadcopter zing up to 70 miles per hour in under a second. But he’s in same boat as the rest:
“We make our own courses, and they're just slightly more sophisticated than backyard softball games, where you designate the mailbox as first base,” he said.
The Simon Cheng-designed Liquid Nitro Speedway, for instance, is really just a bit of wooded acreage in Farmington owned by local drone racer Matt Bohl. For the Liquid Nitro course, Cheng constructed race gates out of PVC pipe and pool noodles. He and his fellow racers used tree stumps for starting blocks. "PVC is actually an upgrade," said Cheng. "I used to make race gates by cutting holes in cheap, kid-sized tents."
To get indoor flying time, Cheng and other drone racers are often left begging the owners of indoor go-kart tracks for race time.
The Mighty Drones, a local chapter of the MultiGP league, has raced at the MB2 go-kart track in Fridley and ProKart track in Burnsville, but the owners are leery of letting drone racers do their thing, even when the racers have money to burn, said Shane "Mac" McCartney, owner of the Midwest Drone Racing League in Edina. “It’s a big liability issue,” he said.
The city of Edina has an ordinance that people may not "start or land an airplane, helicopter, balloon or other aircraft without the written permission of the manager." In Eagan, there are two city-designated parks for drone use, but both of the parks happen to be in Class B airspace where drones are not permitted. "I've spent a lot of time banging my head against the wall, trying to get this business off the ground," says McCartney.
When all the legitimate spaces fizzle out, the drone-obsessed said they head for abandoned buildings, warehouses, airplane hangars, quarries and parking garages--any wide open place where they can put on virtual reality (VR) headsets and pilot at top speed from the bot’s perspective.
It’s a big hole in the marketplace, but one drone-loving family in the St. Cloud area is helping to fill it. This week the Knutsons (Laura, Steve and son Ryan) will open the newly constructed Thunder Dome Raceway. The facility has a one-of-a-kind amenity: a dedicated track for racing speedy, lightweight drones.
The dome is 210 feet long, 160 feet wide, and 45 feet tall. It has four tracks: a carpeted track, an off-road track, a rock crawler track, all for racing remote-controlled cars. And then there’s the drone race track with LED-lit obstacles.
“By winter time, we plan to have big flat screens where people will be able to watch the races right from drone’s camera,” said co-owner and avid drone racer Ryan Knutson. "You [won't] even need to have your own VR headset.”
A belated grand opening and drone component swap-meet is planned for June 11 at the Thunder Dome Raceway.
As of mid-2016, drone racing has its own news outlet, DroneRacingLife. And there’s a new web series, “Behind the Goggles,” where Fox Sports North veteran Kendall Mark travels across the country interviewing the sport’s top pilots. Her show is produced by AirVuz, the Minneapolis startup that wants to be YouTube for all things drone.