Colorful lights zip by, preceded only by a whirling noise.
A trio of veteran remote control pilots practice flying their drones, also known as quadcopters, in a discrete parking lot late one evening.
They don goggles to receive a live stream video directly from a camera mounted to the four-propeller drones, hobbyist Charlie Tomms said. Because the first-person view aspect of the sport demands good lighting, they navigate by the illumination of parking lot fixtures and street lamps at night.
The three pilots, members of the Mad City Drone Racing League, don’t always fly at night. At organized races, they navigate obstacle courses of pool noodles, PVC pipes and tent stakes by day.
“It’s like being a bird,” said Timm Murray, the league’s founder. “It’s not the highest video quality ... but it’s an augmented reality that can really draw you in.”
About a year ago, Murray, 33, was flipping through Make magazine when drone racing first caught his attention.
He initially looked around Madison to see where he could get involved in the sport. When he didn’t turn up a community of local drone racers, Murray decided to establish one himself.
After taking to Reddit, a social news website, and sticking up flyers around local hobby shops to generate some interest, Murray collected a mix of people and founded the Mad City Drone Racing League.
Last summer, about a dozen league members met at Elver Park on Madison’s Southwest Side for bimonthly races. Races would start at 10 a.m. on Saturdays and last until about 4 p.m., Murray said, or just about when the batteries start to die.
Tomms, who helped Murray organize the races, envisions spectators wearing goggles so they can experience the first-person perspective, too.
“That’s part of what’s going to make it a fun spectator sport, I think,” Tomms said. “If you go to a race you can tune into whoever you want, you know, you just keep flipping through the different channels … you see what they’re seeing.”
While the simulation of flying is certainly a draw for the sport, Murray noted that there’s a steep learning curve to actually piloting a quadcopter. And that has proven to be the largest challenge in keeping newcomers coming back.
To help people overcome the initial barrier, Murray facilitates Build Days at the Bodgery makerspace at 4444 Robertson Road.
People can either order the individual components to build a drone from scratch or order an easy-to-assemble kit.
While made-from-scratch quadcopters can be flight-ready within an afternoon, Murray acknowledged that it’s not the cheapest hobby.
The body itself can run $200 to $300, and that’s just the beginning of expenses. With the batteries, battery charger, remote control and goggles, the total cost of a rig can push up to several thousand dollars, Murray said.
The Mad City Drone Racing League has races throughout the summer months. Tomms said that he and some of the other racers also like to compete in races held by the Beaver Dam chapter of the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), a national organization for model aviation.
Information about the Mad City Drone Racing League’s events is listed on its website: madcitydrone racing.com.
Beyond the laws and logistics, Murray has found the most difficult aspect of managing a group of drone hobbyist to be the generational gap between veteran remote controlled (RC) aviators and the younger generation just getting into quadcopters.
The veteran RC aviators have been carefully adhering to regulations for decades in an effort to make sure the hobby doesn’t get shut down, Murray said. But the younger individuals, aren’t familiar with the rules and it bubbles up as friction between the age groups.
And sometimes, there’s just a gray area.
While the quadcopters and similar aviation models are officially classified as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), Tomms believes calling them drones gives the sport a negative connotation.
“I would much rather it be called a quadcopter or UAS — anything other than drone,” Tomms said.
Before they fly, they always call radio control to notify them of the designated airspace they plan on using. But even with these precautions, Tomms said they still struggle to find practice flying locations. People just don’t like the idea of drones zipping around on their property.
“(It’s) just carbon fiber and motors,” Tomms said. “But I think people just don’t know, they don’t understand what it is, so their instinct is to stop it.”