MECHANICSBURG, Pa. – Drones are more popular than ever.
You may have seen hobbyists flying them, or photographers using them to get that bird’s eye view. Now enthusiasts have discovered a new, heart-pumping use for them: racing.
Although these guys don’t really like that word.
Steve Layton spent the early afternoon Saturday plotting a course at an empty park in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.
“We’re just using soccer cones,” he explained. A dotted path formed behind his footsteps. “So the idea is they’re going to follow the white ones.”
It’s by no means a professional affair.
“This is just something I bought at home depot,” Layton said as he put together a gate made of PVC pipe and foam.
But that doesn’t matter. “Like I said, never done it before. Hoping it works.”
Layton formed a group called the Harrisburg Area Multirotor Racers — commonly called a drone racing group. Saturday was their inaugural meeting.
It’s a new sport: The first nationwide governing body, MultiGP, formed in February. Layton put his group together less than a month ago.
But it’s quickly catching on among hobbyists. There are at least two other groups in the Pennsylvania Midstate area, in York and Lititz.
“And they’re all guys like me,” Layton said. “They have kids, they have a normal job, and they just want to come out and have some fun.”
And they want to see what their machines see; cameras on the multirotors beam first-person video, in real time, into what look like virtual-reality goggles that the drivers wear. The video is similar to a racing video game.
Jeff Shriver, a member of the Lehigh Valley racers, drove an hour and a half to join Saturday’s races.
“Can’t do it every weekend,” he said, “But I like to do it as much as possible and get exposed and get involved with other people’s groups so we can help grow it.”
Shriver, along with the rest of the group, knows there’s something of a stigma around his choice of activity. He says that comes from a select few who don’t follow the rules.
“There’s a lot more good out there to be gained from it than a few instances that come up.”
The legal landscape is still a little blurry surrounding the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS). The Federal Aviation Administration is looking into specific rules and regulations.
But, the agency does make a distinction between commercial and recreational use. The guidelines for recreation include rules like a 400-ft. limit on how high you can fly, and keeping the craft within sight at all times.
Not only do these multirotors fly fairly low — often just a few feet off the ground — the group uses “spotters,” people not wearing the first-person goggles who watch the UAS and watch for anyone who might enter the race area.
That’s not to say there aren’t accidents. Shriver replaced several propellers on his machine after it crashed into branches, the ground, and even the gates on the course.
“Sometimes that’s all it takes to win,” he joked. “Just be the guy who hasn’t hit something.”
The wrecks Saturday risked nothing but equipment.
“We’re not out here hurting anybody,” Layton said. “We’re not even hurting the grass. We’re just using some air space.”
And, Layton said, they’re finding common ground among generations. Several neighborhood kids came to watch, and Layton’s teenage son is into the sport as much as he is.
“We’re just normal people,” he said, “just trying to have some fun.”