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They fly hundreds of feet in the air, then dive back down at highway speeds. They zigzag across obstacle courses, zipping through hoops and arches. They do it all sitting down.
Drone racing, the latest pastime to mix video games and real life, has arrived, and as race leagues spring up nationwide, a handful of drone operators and hobby shop owners want to make the sedentary sport take off in Joplin.
To understand the thrill of drone racing, you have to watch from a drone’s-eye view.
Cameras mounted on the drones allow racers, called pilots, to view obstacles from the vantage of the small flying machines. As they sit in folding chairs, wearing goggles and holding a controller in their laps, the race feels anything but remote.
“You put on a pair of goggles, and it’s like virtual reality,” said Michael Jones, owner of Blue Sky Hobbies.
Jones has thrown himself into an effort to bring the first organized race to Joplin, and he hopes area residents will eventually be able to participate in a league without traveling to Springfield or Kansas City.
He insists that the hobby isn’t just for the pilots. When a race comes to Joplin, each racer’s goggles will be linked to a television, allowing spectators a drone’s-eye view.
Jones isn’t the only one who sees the appeal of a pursuit that recalls the sci-fi world of “Star Wars.”
Drone racing appears to be having its moment in the United States. The sports network ESPN televised a series of races last fall, and racing leagues have sprung up across the United States.
When the Federal Aviation Administration began requiring that drones be registered, about 39,000 people signed up within the first four months, and companies have rushed to develop better components for racing drones.
The motorsport is both futuristic and nonexclusive, although early adherents have mostly been men.
“Anybody can do it,” Jones said. “I’ve seen everyone from 8-year-olds out there to guys who are 65 years old.”
He is moving his shop to a new Joplin strip mall because it has a large, mostly empty parking lot, anticipating that he will soon be the host for regular races.
When the first race comes to Joplin, Scot Stites will be there.
After years of skateboarding and racing dirt bikes, the 42-year-old says he’s ready to stick with drone racing. On a clear day this week, he could get his thrills sitting in a folding chair in his backyard.
“I don’t have to go anywhere, and I don’t have to have a trailer to haul (the drone),” he said.
Drone building has taken up most of Stites’ hobbyist energy for several years, and a corner of his home is dedicated to a workshop crowded with wires and propellers. Drones can be purchased whole from a number of manufacturers, but dedicated pilots like Stites prefer to buy the components and build them from scratch.
Stites sent his drone soaring along with one operated by Justin Maupin, 29. After a few minutes of flight, both drones attempted to pass through a hoop at the same time.
They smashed into each other, but after a disturbance onscreen, Stites’ drone flew on, apparently unharmed.
Maupin wasn’t so lucky. He jogged into the field to collect his craft, which had caught the business end of Stites’ propellers.
“You chopped my PDB!” he said, referring to the power distribution board, one of at least two tiny computer systems on Maupin’s craft that help smooth its flight and cut the engines when there’s trouble. These are the technologies whose rapid advance — and especially miniaturization — is driving the expansion of drone racing. More people are picking up the hobby as the drones become faster, cheaper and easier to operate.
The machines arrayed in Stites’ workshop attest to the speed with which recreational drones have developed.
The best machines from just a few years ago couldn’t compete with a run-of-the-mill model built today, he said.
Drones can be bought whole off the shelf, but hobbyists like Stites and Maupin, who served as a helicopter mechanic in the Navy, willingly embrace the technical aspects of drone ownership.
Building them requires plenty of knowledge — and space.
“I have a feeling my desk is going to be turned into a drone workshop,” said Casey Whitehead, shop manager at Windows 4 Less, the business that Stites started on the property next to his home.
Regulators have rushed to keep up with rapidly changing drone technology, leading to laws against flying drones above 400 feet and a registration requirement for drones weighing more than 0.55 pounds.
Stites says he has six registered already. Maupin has ordered the parts to build a racing drone so tiny it won’t have to be registered at all.
Equipment and rules are trappings of any hobby, but for Jones, the key to drone racing is flight — the out-of-body feeling of dodging obstacles 20 feet off the ground.
“It’s a stress-free environment,” he said. “You’re basically pulling up a lawn chair, putting on a pair of goggles, and becoming oblivious to everything around you.”
Drones weighing more than 0.55 pounds must be registered (cost: $5).
Drones may not be flown higher than 400 feet.
Drones may not be operated near an airport.
Source: Federal Aviation Administration
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