Attack of the Drones

By Zach Warner| DFW Newsflash | August 2017

Cavanaugh’s Drone Wars showcases technology, flight and racing’s future

It was as if scenes from a sci-fi movie invaded the hanger at the Cavanaugh Flight Museum in Addison on Feb. 17 through 18: Quadcopters took to the air, whizzed around corners and darted through an obstacle course as crowds cheered them on. Nano drones battled regular-sized drones, while a larger drone served as an eye in the sky, providing a video feed while hovering 30 feet above.

Technology that once seemed light-years away, however, is now a reality, as techie and aviation enthusiasts are regular participants in the growing sport of drone racing.

The Cavanaugh staff saw the lure of these futuristic flyers early on, establishing a contest for amateurs and more experienced drone pilots alike beginning in 2014. This year, the participation and enthusiasm that accompanied the museum’s Drone Wars IV event proved the sport’s popularity continues to climb sky-high.

“We do this event to promote aviation,” said Scott Slocum, marketing and public relations director for the museum. “While the museum is about history, the future of aviation is drones. We were looking for a way to get young people involved in what we’re doing out here, to get them interested.

“We realized that embracing drone technology and what it’s going to be in the future was the way to do that. Making these events happen out here at the museum is a great way to share history and the future.”

Surrounded by its normal display of aircraft used in World War II, Cavanaugh transformed its hangar into a drone racing course that allowed about 20 competitors to duke it out in one of two categories: Line of Sight (LOS) racing and First Person View (FPV) racing. LOS allows pilots to look at their drone as they control it, watching where it flies and taking it through the challenges of an obstacle course. FPV requires the drone pilot to control his/her aircraft totally through the visual display provided inside the drone, so participants can only operate their drone by wearing goggles that allow them to see its location from the perspective of the drone.

About 500 people came out to watch the event, as the top three winners were crowned in the LOS and FPV divisions. After a round robin and elimination bracket, Marshall Mann (racing code name ‘Tomahawk’) defeated Ron Pirkle (code name ‘Buzz’) for the LOS title, while Stephen McDermott outlasted several FPV opponents to take home first place in that division. Top winners received $100, with runners-up taking $75 and third place earning $50.

“It’s 100 percent practice, that’s the big thing,” said Mann, a 15-year-old freshman at Dallas Jesuit, who impressed competitors and spectators alike with a super-smooth control of his drone that helped earn him the LOS championship. “You have to have good depth perception, also hand-eye coordination and response time.”

Mann has entered the tournament three of its four years, absent only last year, and came away with the title all three times in which he participated. The freshman took up the drone hobby at age nine and has never looked back.

“It’s just been a big part of my life, I guess,” he said. “I want to eventually turn it into a career if I could. I’ve seen [drone development] grow like crazy. The drones they had modeled [during the event] are above and beyond what I could’ve imagined two years ago. The technology in these drones has grown so fast. A few years ago, you could film really shaky video with a drone maybe 20 feet up in the air. Now people are taking them up to 500 feet and getting 60 mph shots.”

Domestic drones come in all shapes and sizes as well as capabilities. Larger drones have better speed, but smaller drones handle and maneuver better. Some of the top racing drones reach speeds of 80 mph and need open areas to compete without the threat of crashing and doing major damage to the drone’s structure.

Competing in an enclosed net inside the hangar, participants at Cavanaugh were forced to be on their toes to avoid getting their drones stuck in the netting or running into objects set up for the obstacle course.  Newbies to the sport as well as seasoned veterans like Mann all enjoyed the local version of drone racing.

“[The level of skills at the event] was pretty mixed,” said Ron Pirkle, who took home $75 in prize money. Pirkle and his brother Richard competed in drone racing for the first time. “You had some that were in the upper-tier, and you had several that were at the entry level. Quite honestly, they all got in and battled it out pretty closely.

“I think I’m hooked,” he said. “My brother and I are talking about starting our own little league, setting up a similar event. We want to do this again. We don’t want to wait a year.”

With popularity of competition growing rapidly, they likely will not have to. Drone racing leagues are starting to pop up in various spots around the country, and in other parts of the world, the techie tournaments have reached epic proportions. Last year’s World Drone Prix in Dubai boasted a prize pool of $1 million with competitors coming from around the globe. The top finisher, a teenager from England, took home $250,000.

“We’re seeing $1 million prize monies at some of these events, and we’re seeing corporate sponsors coming in that are not drone manufacturers,” said Slocum, mentioning how some businesses are putting their corporate logos on drones and on their teams’ caps and shirts in the style of Nascar. “Other companies are coming in and sponsoring, which tells me that they see the value of what’s going on and that there’s entertainment here. I think it’s going to continue to grow, and it’s becoming a big industry.”

Locally, Cavanaugh has served as the sport’s trend-setter. When the museum was first considering holding an event, Slocum researched and found no hint of drone racing competition anywhere in the states.

Today, drones continue to become the ‘in’ thing when it comes to outdoor techie equipment. Radio-controlled planes and copters were once the big draw in the toy and recreation business, but drones have taken over.

“The helicopters are dying and the drones are getting more and more popular,” said Lewis Pollok, an assistant manager at the Lewisville HobbyTown, a sponsor of the museum’s event. “I think it’s definitely the fastest growing segment of the air [division of RC toys].

“I started in helicopters, and I moved over to the drones, because they’re easier to fly and they crash better,” Pollok said. “At the end of the day, we want people to go home and have as much fun with it as we do. We’re basically a bunch of grown men that work in a toy store. We like to provide nice quality entry-level stuff that people can go home and fly, and not just fly, but when they break it, they can fix it. People can have fun with and not worry about too much.”

Durability is important, whether the aircrafts are used for leisure or competition. But if a drone owner were to race on a regular basis, being able keep it in the air and compete from week to week is an appealing concept.

“Wouldn’t it be great to pay for your hobby?” Richard Pirkle said with a laugh. “Just getting your drone and flying around over the trees and stuff is just as cool, too. There’s a lot of stuff you can do with the drones.”

The capability and future of drones, whether in racing, video capture, or simply watching its in-flight maneuvers, continues to grab people’s attention. But what draws people to events like Cavanaugh’s Drone Wars?

“I think it’s the technology, which is great because we are behind in engineering right now,” Slocum said. “We need to get back in play with that. Getting kids interested in designing and creating their own drones I think is a good thing. Not only in aviation, but for the engineering side of it. The guys that are flying those top drones, they’re building them custom.

“If a kid comes away from here with a spark of wanting to fly a drone or an airplane, I feel like we’ve accomplished our mission.”