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Racing by remote

June 30, 2018 GMT

For Dave Just, it’s the closest thing to flying without ever leaving the ground.

He’s talking about drone racing.

Just is fast. He can maneuver a square-foot drone around flags and through gates like a Top Gun pilot. Or so it seems to a first-time viewer. In reality, world-class drone racers can do twice as many laps as he can do on a course, he says.

“It’s like a video game,” Just said. “It’s as close as we’re ever going to get to being able to zoom through the trees like the stormtroopers on Endor in ‘Star Wars.’”

Just, Ryan Kuisle, his dad Dale Kuisle and Jeremy Palbicki are all members of Med City Drones, a 2-year-old club whose members aren’t shy about indulging their nerdish sides. All four work at Mayo Clinic and work in technology.

Today, drones have become almost ubiquitous. No longer just used as killing machines against terrorists, today drones are used to capture events, take pictures and video, and make special deliveries. Police have found them useful to surveil suspects in crime investigations.

And they are also great for racing.

It’s hard to say just how popular drone racing is, Just said, because much of the activity takes place in isolation — in people’s backyards or at local parks. But it’s become popular enough that there are now two for-profit drone racing leagues in the U.S.

“The community isn’t as connected as other sports, because we can do this by ourselves,” Just said. “There’s a population that isn’t seeking out the community.”

But the Med City Drones are seeking out that community.

The club holds races the third Saturday of the month June through October at the Rochester Aero Model Society field in northwest Rochester.

There, they host drone races, whisking the machines over a course made up of gates and flags. Scoring is based on the number of laps a pilot can do over a two-minute time limit.

“It’s just the freedom,” said Ryan Kuisle. “Being able to race around at breakneck speeds. There’s actually quite an adrenaline rush as you’re whipping through course obstacles.”

That out-of-body thrill is conveyed through a relatively inexpensive set of equipment. They include FPV goggles (FPV stands for First Person View), a visor-like contraption that sets over the eyes and allows the pilot to see from the drone’s point of view.

A hand-held console or radio transmitter allows the pilot to control the drone.

And then there’s the drone itself, which listens to the signals from the transmitter and flies around. The drone also has a camera and video transmitter, which conveys the video signal back to the FPV googles.

Just says drone racing is likely to grow in popularity, as more companies come out with ready-to-use drones.

“We’re still at the cutting edge of this,” he said. “For the most part, racing drones have to be self-built. They still have to be programmed and tweaked by the pilot owner. But more companies are starting to come out with ready-to-use racing drones.”

Drone racing has been propelled by a confluence of factors, Just said. Drones are now cheap enough for people to buy. More drones in people’s hands has encouraged more experimentation with them.

Smartphone technology also has played a role. The chips and sensors that endow smartphone with GPS is the same technology found in drones.

A standard, low-end racing drone can now be purchased for $150 to $200. A higher-end one, such as the kinds used for national competitions, comes in at about $400 to $500.

“It appeals to people with more of technological background,” Ryan Kuisle said. “But on the other side, people who like the sporting aspect buy them right out of the box. If you’re more into racing them.”