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Drone Racing: Flying for fun in Grand Forks

Jakee Stoltz and Matt Henry spend their workdays flying a variety of drones for researchers in Grand Forks, but they don't put the controllers down when they clock out for the day.

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A pair of quadcopter drones fly through a gate on the RotoCross course Saturday. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Jakee Stoltz and Matt Henry spend their workdays flying a variety of drones for researchers in Grand Forks, but they don't put the controllers down when they clock out for the day.

The pair are behind a chapter of recreational drone racers that is taking shape in Grand Forks called Red River Rotocross.

While many drone hobbyists use the devices to take aerial video and photographs, Henry and Stoltz found the aircraft can be used for even more after finding videos of various racing events on the internet.

"I had to learn how to fly a quadcopter, so I just kind of got one and, in trying to find the one I wanted, came across drone racing videos on YouTube," Henry said. "I said this looks more fun than hovering around taking pictures."

The hobby complements Henry and Stoltz's work as mission managers for the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, a public agency designated by the Federal Aviation Administration that researches the integration of unmanned aircraft systems into national airspace.

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The job requires them to plan and execute a variety of flight missions ranging from gathering data on farmland to figuring out how insurance companies can use unmanned aircraft to inspect roofs for damage.

Transferring their skills to racing resulted in the founding of the Red River Rotocross chapter in April. About 25 people are members of the chapter, one of two in North Dakota organized under the parent group Multi GP.

"We started building in the winter and as soon as it thawed and was nice enough out, we started hitting it hard," Stoltz said. "And that's when we found out about Multi GP, so we just started a chapter right away."

Multi GP is an international racing league with a heavy presence in North America as well as Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and South America. More than 730 chapters comprise the league, which hosts competition-based tournaments.

Racers fly with small aircraft that are divided into classes based on a number of factors, including their motor size, number of propeller blades, weight and type - rotocopter or fixed-wing aircraft.

Race format

Similar to other Multi GP chapters, Red River Rotocross hosts races in which participants fly aircraft through a timed course.

Pilots navigate their aircraft through the course using first-person view, meaning a video feed streaming from the drone is broadcast to a pair of goggles worn by the pilot. The goggles allow the pilot to see in front of the aircraft and maneuver it in flight.

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"Generally, getting started, it makes people kind of nauseous because it's pretty weird to not be inside (the aircraft)," Stoltz said. "They're turning corners and moving their heads - it takes awhile to get used to it."

There is no GPS or control assistance on the aircraft that would make flying it easier. Instead, pilots must rely on their skills to guide the drone as it zips through the racecourse.

Between three and five participants fly the course simultaneously and must complete the course in a set time. For example, Henry said racers may be given three minutes to make three laps around the course.

"We kind of vary the time depending on how many people are involved and how big the course gets," he added.

The course can feature gates the drones must pass through, but pilots also may be required to fly around other objects such as trees. Racers who can complete the course within the time limit are then ranked by their overall time, with the fastest considered the winner.

Red River Rotocross partners with other area racers to hold events in Grand Forks and Fargo, which is home to the Anytime Fun FPV chapter.

"We'll do a race up here, and they'll do one down there, kind of back and forth," Stoltz said.

As part of the Multi GP league, chapters are divided into tiers and regions. Regional qualifiers are held with winners advancing to the national championships.

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Red River Rotocross is in the lowest tier but can move up as it gains more members and holds more races. The events open up access to sponsorships, prizes and other incentives that benefit racers.

Getting started

Though their chapter is relatively new, Henry and Stoltz say there's already more local interest in it and drone racing than they first expected.

Those who want to jump into the activity should prepare to part with a decent amount of cash.

"There's a lot of interest, but there is a pretty big barrier to entry I suppose," Stoltz said. "These things are cheap compared to some hobbies, but it's still a $600 or $700 investment. That can be hard for some people to swallow to get into it."

Unlike many drones available on the market, these aircraft are assembled from a bevy of parts by their owners instead of arriving ready to race from a manufacturer. There are kits of race-ready aircraft available, but Stoltz said most prefer to gather parts and assemble the drone themselves.

"I'd say 99 percent of the people out there prefer to build their own," Stoltz said. "It's part of the fun for a lot of people, so you just buy all the parts separately and make it work together."

Finding the right parts can be a challenge, as Grand Forks is no longer home to a hobby store so most racers order the pieces online. Ordering from suppliers in places such as California, Florida and Ohio means waiting on parts.

"We space our races out to give people a couple of weeks to order parts and wait for those to show up because you can't just go down the street and buy what you need," Henry said.

Once the summer flying season is over, Stoltz said the chapter likely will hold workshops where members will help those new to the hobby build an aircraft. A number of resources also can be found online for beginners that guide them through building aircraft and becoming familiar with race safety standards.

As the hobby catches on, Henry and Stoltz expect chapter activity to ramp up as more people become involved.

"The summer has basically been a kind of a test run for us - get our feet wet, figure out what works and what doesn't," Stoltz said. "Hopefully, next year we can get more involvement and make something out of it."

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