BLACKSBURG – Nestor Folta’s drone sounded like a mosquito as it buzzed around an empty field on a recent afternoon, flying around 60 mph through a homemade obstacle course of PVC pipes.
The practice course was designed to be identical to what Folta, 21, and two other Virginia Tech students will face at the first ever Collegiate Drone Racing National Championship in Indiana on Saturday.
Folta, Christian AndersonSchoepe and Michael Wang call their team Mad Props. They’ve all been flying drones recreationally for years, but they took up the entirely new hobby of drone racing just months ago. Now, they’re getting ready to compete for the first time.
So far, Folta estimates he’s spent about $3,000 on the hobby. There will be about $10,000 worth of drone gear, from motors to video goggles, up for grabs this weekend.
“I’ve always loved things that fly,” Folta said. “So being able to put on goggles and do exactly what I could do in a plane is pretty cool.”
The drones are smaller and lighter than typical, as they’re built for speed instead of stability or carrying capacity.
They fly at a steep incline with their noses pointing toward the ground. Four propellers turn as the drones glide just inches off the ground at times, clipping crossbars and sending parts flying at others.
“Spare [parts] are everything,” Folta says.
A camera on the aircraft beams a real-time, first-person view of the drone’s flight path back to headsets the pilots wear. That way they’re able to navigate through obstacles more than 500 feet away, when the drone just looks like a dot on the horizon.
Each gate sits 5 feet off the ground. There’s supposed to be 12 of them, but Folta ran out of PVC piping after 11. He decided it’s close enough.
He also created a matching virtual course, so the team can practice the route as a video game before trying the real thing.
They’ll be facing off against 45 other pilots from across the country at Purdue University’s campus this weekend. The competition includes one drone flying world record holder and one pilot with a professional sponsorship.
“So we’ll see how it goes,” Folta said with a shrug.
Competitive drone racing is a new phenomenon, but it’s growing in popularity as it has caught the attention of mainstream brands such as ESPN, which has broadcast competitions, and Mountain Dew, which is a sponsor.
Pilots will fly one at a time at Saturday’s competition. They each get two minutes to complete as many laps through the course as possible. If they miss a gate, they have to fly back and pass through each obstacle.
Folta was able to hit three laps at a practice session in Blacksburg last week, but he hopes to complete at least four when it counts.
AndersonSchoepe has only been flying for a couple weeks, so he’s just competing for the fun of it.
“I love the racing aspect of it,” Folta, a former high school track runner, said. “Beating other people, seeing how fast you can go.
“I got sucked in,” he added. “So here I am.”