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You can “fly like you see in ‘Top Gun’” as drone racing takes off

For Mark Grohe of Fayetteville, strapping on his first-person-view goggles is not different from strapping himself into an airplane.

The live feed from his drone’s camera and a pair of joysticks allow him to steer his aircraft through hurdles, make hairpin turns and race other pilots while trying not to crash going 60 mph.

“So what it gives you the ability to do is fly like you see in ‘Top Gun’,” Grohe said. “You get that adrenaline. You can flip and roll, but it’s like you are in an airplane.”

Whether it’s like flying in “Top Gun” or pod racing in “Star Wars,” it’s that feeling that is bringing together gamers and adrenaline enthusiasts alike to race drones. And the Triangle has its own set of fliers.

On Saturday, about 20 pilots, including some from Fayetteville and the Triangle, gathered at Devil’s Ridge Motocross in Sanford to race their quadcopters, or unmanned helicopters with four rotors.

Veterans and first-time racers participated in the races, which were more about precision than speed. Six racers at a time would fly a course of gates and flags while dodging trees. They had to lap the course three times in two minutes, but many crashed before they reached the end.

“We try to make it more technical so it’s more of an obstacle course than a NASCAR race,” said Grohe, co-founder of the Fayetteville Multirotor Racing Club and owner of 2DogRC, a Goldsboro-based remote-control aircraft company.

Many of Saturday’s pilots, like Zebulon resident Brad Williams, started off flying RC helicopters and airplanes but have since turned to building their own drones. Williams, who used to jump out of airplanes, said drone racing is now his new adrenaline rush.

“It’s an easy escape,” he said. “I can take it out after work, and I’m done in 10 or 15 minutes.”

The first-person view gives the pilot a feeling of flying, even the stomach-flipping sensation for those who aren’t as friendly with higher altitudes.

But the rush doesn’t last long. Racing runs through the drone’s battery – and fast.

Roger Bess of Apex arrived with 12 charged batteries, which last about 2.5 minutes each while flying.

“And it won’t be enough,” he said, pulling out an extra car battery to charge more drone batteries while he races.

 
 

Several of Saturday’s fliers, including Bess, were early adopters of drones – long before the technology had improved to what it is today. They described drones from years ago as bigger, slower and less responsive.

“Back then everything was just running leaps and bounds slower,” said Josh Hyde, chapter organizer for Raleigh Rotor Racers. “That made it harder to fly smoothly. It was like you were fighting the quad the whole time, and now it’s like the quad is an extension of you.”

Since then, drone racing has gained national attention. Last year, ESPN began broadcasting races for the Drone Racing League, a first-person-view drone racing league.

But one of the biggest hurdles for new fliers to get into drone racing is the price tag. Grohe said it costs about $1,000 to get started in racing, but that it is possible to find ready-to-fly drones for around $200. Drones and their parts will fall in price as they become more popular and the technology continues to evolve.

“I think just the expense hurdle is the hard part and that will come down as it gets more mainstream,” Grohe said.

Kathryn Trogdon: 919-829-4845: @KTrogdon

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