By JACOB TAYLOR, Capital News Service
BALTIMORE (AP) — It’s been a hard road for the unmanned aerial vehicle, the drone.
From the first unmanned balloon bombs sent by Austria to blow themselves up over Venice in 1849, to the little radio-controlled planes used for target practice by the U.S. in World War II, to the company of surveillance drones used by Israel to trigger Syrian surface-to-air missiles in 1982, drones have always been defined by their expendability.
Private companies have opened up new, more peaceful opportunities for drones in the world of shipping, mapping, and videography, but the life of the average drone is still spent working or at war.
To a human, racing may appear to be a more peaceful use for drones. To a drone, it’s all the same; whether conducting missile strikes in Yemen, monitoring an icebreaker at the south pole, or racing down a track, the question is not whether you will crash, but when.
On April 1, the first Baltimore Grand Prix drone race was held at Open Works, a public fabrication and art studio, in North Baltimore. The race, the Baltimore Grand Prix, was organized by Global Air Media, a company that uses drones for aerial mapping and videography.
The race consisted of several heats where up to three dinner plate-sized drones raced down a net-enclosed corridor over a short, dead-end street. The corridor was divided into sections by more nets, with specific gaps that marked the course.
Victory was determined by the number of laps that a pilot could complete within two and a half minutes.
The nets proved to be a challenge, most drones ended their runs by botching a turn and ending up tangled in a net; many races ended well before the timer ran out, with all three drones either twitching on the ground or wobbling in the net like bugs in a spider web.
A netted drone typically drew pained “ooohhhhs” from the crowd, like those that might accompany a race car skidding off the track. Other unlucky drones smashed into more solid obstacles — such as the poles supporting the netting — prompting sharp, empathetic shouts, like what usually follows a hard belly flop from a high-dive.
The Grand Prix was a first-person-view or FPV race. Pilots in FPV races use virtual-reality headsets connected to cameras mounted on their drones to fly the course. This method lets the pilot see exactly what the drone “sees” but also limits the pilot’s field of view to the front of their drone. FPV has become the standard method for drone races.
Joey Mensch, a junior at Archbishop Spalding High School, was one of the competitors. He said he got into drones a few years ago, initially just flying them without a headset in open areas. He later introduced Grayson Gilbert, a junior at South River High School, to drone piloting.
The two friends started racing each other for fun and decided to participate in the Grand Prix for their first official race. Gilbert said drone racing is “hard, but fun.” Asked what draws him to drones, Mensch said, “it gets you off the ground.”
Mayor Catherine Pugh opened the competition from a balcony overlooking the course. Pugh awarded Matthew Crouch a bright red, 3D-printed trophy after he won the first race of the day. She told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service that she saw the race as part of a larger effort to engage young people in technological pursuits. Austin Brown, a co-founder of Global Air Media, said the race was specifically intended to “get kids engaged in STEM.”
Crouch is the chapter organizer for Maryland Quad Racers, a group under the umbrella of the MultiGP drone racing league. The Quad Racers hold their own monthly races that Crouch says are “more casual” than the Grand Prix held on the first Saturday in April.
Nicholas Horbaczewski is the founder and CEO of the Drone Racing League, a sports and media company that runs, organizes and sponsors drone races around the world.
Horbaczewski says drone racing “is going through its awareness phase right now;” and that increased awareness is helping to establish a formal sport out of an activity that, until very recently, has been dominated by hobbyists.
Mecca Lewis, a Baltimore resident who attended the race after going to a drone technology class at Open Works, said she thought the novelty factor was a big draw for people at the race.
“This isn’t something that’s typical of Baltimore, so we’re seeing a lot of new events like this and I think a lot of people are interested in, like, getting something new,” she said.
Ryan Dalgarno, a drone hobbyist, brought his own headset to the race. He did not participate, but patched his headset into the event’s stream so that he could see what the pilots of different racing drones could see.
“I think it’s awesome” he said as watched the race, occasionally peeking into his headset to things from a drone’s eye view.