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The Urbanist

Chicago’s Drone Racing Scene Is Like a High-Tech Heist Movie

The meet-ups held by Chicago Drone Racers are The Fast and the Furious for the pocket-protector set: a little fierce and a lotta tech.

Illustration: Dan Page

At the edge of the tee boxes in Bensenville’s White Pines Golf Dome, a guy with a crewcut steps up and grabs a microphone. “Three … two … one … go!” he bellows, his voice ricocheting inside the football-field-size space. Eight racer drones lift off, and the high-pitched hiss of miniature aircraft fills the air.

My head spins, literally, as I follow the paths of the quadcopters—so named for their four whirling propellers—zooming around a makeshift course 10 feet off the ground at 80 miles an hour. With every turn, these carbon-fiber fliers look like they might spiral out of control. Yet they remain airborne, chasing one another through a series of gates perched on wobbly plastic stanchions.

The drones’ pilots (yes, that’s what they call themselves) sit nearly motionless in a single row of folding chairs. Using ultraprecise finger movements, they toggle ever so slightly between the two tiny joysticks on the controllers they hold. All the men (there’s nary a female to be found, but that’s another story) are decked out in bulky, futuristic FPV (first-person-view) goggles that look as dorky as they sound. Essentially, they give these stationary jet jocks the exhilarating sensation of being in a cockpit, navigating the danger zone—their reality of guzzling Red Bull at an indoor driving range momentarily forgotten.

There’s a decent crowd here—maybe 45 people—for the Chicago Drone Racers’ Thursday Night Fun Fly, which kicks off after 8 p.m. when golf is over, khakis and polo shirts gradually giving way to gamer-type dudes in wool caps. The dome is one of the few local indoor spots spacious enough for no-holds-barred drone racing. In warmer months, the club races outdoors at places like the Tinley Creek Woods forest preserve and the Leisure Hours Raceway, a track in Joliet geared toward remote-control cars—and now drones.

A smattering of golfers packing up their clubs stand slack-jawed, unable to look away from the aerial drag races. The scene resembles a high-tech heist movie. Laptops open, pilots peck away at the software code that powers their controllers, which can be tweaked to alter the drones’ behavior. For example, how quickly a craft stabilizes after it clips a competitor while whipping around a turn—think two stock cars muscling toward the finish line—depends on the pilot’s coding choices.

The rapid advancement of drone technology has driven down prices: You can score an off-the-shelf racing quad for a couple hundred bucks, plus a few hundred more for the goggles. It only made sense that hobbyists and adrenaline junkies would converge to make drone racing a thing. According to ESPN, which was quick to get in on the action, the first season of Drone Racing League drew more than 30 million viewers last year.

Curious about who’s fueling this pursuit, I hit up Brian West, organizer of the Chicago Drone Racers, to check out an event. “Tonight is for fun,” West says. “It’s a scrimmage, but everyone is going for it. We have a lot of [pilots] moving up and ranking very high nationally.”

I notice the intensity of the races I witness—something I wasn’t expecting, given the competitors the sport attracts. Just about everyone I meet works in engineering or computer science. But although they’re rule followers—all are registered with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Academy of Model Aeronautics, which provides insurance coverage in the event your drone goes rogue—they definitely know how to push the boundaries of robotics. Any drone racer worth his goggles builds a custom machine by mounting his own motor, speed controls, and camera. Take Kevin Keane, 34, a tech-savvy Italian wine specialist from Oak Park who started building his own drones eight years ago. He says the formation of the Chicago Drone Racers in 2015 got him out of a basement-­tinkering rut: “Trying to figure things out on your own is such a headache. We’re all crutching off each other. But it takes a lot of practice—you’re not just going to pick this up and start flying.”

Yes, that would be foolish. But when Keane offers to let me pilot a Tiny Whoop—a smaller practice drone—I’m all about channeling my inner Vin Diesel. “This is your yaw,” he explains, pointing to one of the two controller sticks. “And this your pitch.” I nod like I get it. He puts the thing in beginner mode, which allows it to stay level no matter what I do. Still, five seconds in, I manage an ugly crash into the side of the dome. Next, an erratic dive-bomb back to us. “It takes some time to get used to,” Keane says. I hand him the remote and slink away.

Crashes, I discover, are a big part of the sport. (Perfect, I’m a natural.) Every so often, someone hustles back to his gear case to replace a propeller, like a pit crewman changing tires. “This is almost like a Mad Max road race,” Paul Barsamian, an athletic-looking guy in his 40s from Glenview, says with a straight face. “Half of it is just finishing.” As the head of unmanned aerial vehicles services at Accenture, Barsamian has directed dozens of corporate initiatives that use drones for collecting data—everything from land surveys to port security. At meet-ups like this one, he gets to play with the equipment he oversees for clients every day. “I think the common thread among drone racers is they are people with a passion for making things, and they love the challenge of doing something in a physical space, versus just playing a video game.”

To help me understand, Barsamian lends me a pair of goggles. After a minute, I’m wishing for my Dramamine; it’s like my brain is riding a roller coaster without my body. When he crashes into a gate, the major distinction between drone racing and video games becomes evident. “Out here, there’s no reset button,” a buddy says as Barsamian jogs out to retrieve chunks of his drone strewn along the turf.

Barsamian scoots back into his chair. Pit stop success. “This absolutely is an addiction,” he says, adjusting his goggles. It’s nearly midnight, and he looks exhausted. Nevertheless, controller in hand, he can’t resist another takeoff in three … two … one …

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