Interest in an indoor track dedicated to drone racing is picking up speed in Naperville as enthusiasts dream of a permanent location to train and compete.
Chicago weather can be brutal for the sport, so groups like the Chicago Drone Racers hone their skills during the winter at the White Pines Golf Dome in Bensenville. As the seasons turn warmer, they head outdoors.
A place to fly year-round is possible if Naperville lands a business startup hub that is expected to focus on the emerging tech markets of robotics, droids, virtual and augmented reality, communication technology, artificial intelligence, cloud computing and drones.
Hub organizers are eyeing 200,000 square feet of vacant space on the grounds of the Nokia campus at the corner of Warrenville and Naperville roads, of which 40,000 square feet on the fifth floor would be dedicated to the drone track and racers.
Swarm Robotix CEO Glenn Luckinbill, a hub co-founder, envisions drones racing through a variety of geometric-shaped obstacles lit by different fluorescent colors. He said he’d like the neon lights of the track to be seen from Interstate 88.
Luckinbill said drone racing has become one of the fastest growing esports in the last decade. U.S. and international leagues are streamed live on social media channels and featured on TV channels such as ESPN, Sky Sports and Disney XD.
He added local drone leagues are 21tst century version of “the bowling league of the ’80s.” As such, Luckinbill wants the facility filled with racing leagues geared for kids and adults.
Luckinbill also said he’d be interested in starting a league to introduce more girls and women to the sport that is heavily dominated by men.
Just as high schools compete in Vex Robotics and FIRST Robotic tournaments, Luckinbill sees drone racing becoming a popular school-related activity that could be hosted at the Naperville hub.
Brian West, who heads up Chicago Drone Racers, said a race typically involves eight quadcopters flying at one time through a designated course. The fastest drone wins.
To navigate, pilots wear FPV, or first-person view, googles that give them a drone perspective as cameras are mounted on the quadcopter bodies.
Like with other radio-controlled vehicles, the pilots toggle tiny joy sticks on a controller to move the drones in any direction.
During the winter months, between 30 and 50 racers from across the Chicago area show up for events at the White Pines Golf Dome in Bensenville. The group has more than 1,300 members, West said.
West said it takes 5 to 20 minutes to set up the obstacle course inside the dome, depending on the number of people helping.
When the group heads outdoors, West said setup can take 60 to 90 minutes because there are more obstacles, and they have to be anchored down in case of a wind gust.
For the most part, it’s much like a “traveling circus,” said West, a Plainfield resident. “It would so easy if we had a place where we could just show up and race.”
And racers wouldn’t have to worry about weather, he added.
West, who’s surveyed the property at Nokia, said he’d like to see a track with its own character, with a lot of 3-D obstacles and plenty of lights.
John DePierre, general manager of Heli-Nation, said the popularity of drone racing really has taken off since the Naperville-based drone-parts company started six years ago.
“Every year it gets bigger and bigger,” he said.
As a sponsor of Chicago Drone Racers, Heli-Nation sells drones that are ready to fly, starter kits and individual parts.
“You’ve got to get able to fix it when it crashes,” he said.
What draws people to drone racing is the sensation, DePierre said. “It’s the ability to put the goggles on and to feel like you’re flying like a bird. It’s a really neat experience,” he said.
Drone racing is open to all ages, DePierre said, but racers usually start round 14 years old. “We even have retired guys who are looking for something fun to do,” he said.
He also said many people who got involved in radio-controlled cars or planes are moving over to drones.
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