As baseball players practiced on a damp field and basketball players shot hoops in the Apple Valley High School gym Saturday, the atrium was abuzz with the high-pitched whir of tiny propellers at the first Minnesota State High School Drone Racing Tournament.
The Apple Valley Eagles hosted the St. Louis Park Orioles — coincidentally, the state’s only high schools with drone teams both have high-flying mascots. Students flew drones they built themselves that were small enough to fit in the palm of a hand. Some assembled theirs from kits, while others fabricated frames from a 3-D printer and soldered cameras on the top.
Four competitors lined up for the first heat, wearing bulky goggles with antennae on front that enable them to see a live video feed from the drone’s perspective (called first-person view, or FPV).
A small crowd of family and friends could follow the competitors’ feeds, simultaneously displayed on a screen. A local startup focused on drone-racing entertainment, Hydra FPV, created the technology and organized the competition.
Marty Wetherall, head of Hydra FPV, served as emcee and called drone-racing “the sport of the future.” Not only that, learning how to build and pilot drones offered multiple opportunities for academic enrichment, not the least of which was on-the-fly problem solving: “You learn MacGyvering,” he said.
And then he started the racers: “Goggles down, thumbs up!”
A cousin to eSports, or competitive video game playing, drone racing got its start in underground races in abandoned warehouses or forests. In recent years, racers have organized into leagues and had competitions broadcast on ESPN. Some races’ total purses have reached a million bucks.
For the Apple Valley and St. Louis Park students, whose drone classes launched this year, the machines have been a fun way to apply physics and engineering skills.
Apple Valley High School started a new drone construction, modification and flight elective this spring and filled two classes of students who met daily. St. Louis Park High School began incorporating FPV drones in its Engineering 3 class.
Physics teacher Christopher Lee, who leads Apple Valley’s course, said that students have been arriving an hour before classes begin and staying late after school to practice flying. “I haven’t seen excitement like that from students in 30 years of teaching,” he said.
Wetherall describes the activity as robotics meets pinewood derby meets theatrical set design. The students even created the obstacles for the course, which the drones had to tunnel or corkscrew through.
When drones crashed, course “marshals” righted them so the pilots could restart from where they left off. There were a few tech issues when drones went on the fritz. Spectators occasionally had to duck. The event featured an individual competition, a team relay race, as well as a Line of Sight contest where students flew without goggles, the way beginners learn to fly. The tournament closed with an elite race featuring some of the area’s top drone-racing pilots (including Chris Spangler, one of the top drone pilots in the world, who is contracted to fly for an NBC Sports show starting this summer).
St. Louis Park took home the team trophy and Apple Valley student Andrew Martin won the individual race, even though he’d had to replace his drone’s flight board earlier that morning. (The day before, a TV anchor doing a segment about the tournament had crashed it.)
His advice to would-be drone racers? “You have to have the mind-set that stuff is going to break,” he said.