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Reno Air Races welcomes drones

RENO — A new kind of aircraft is competing for the first time at this week’s National Championship Air Races in Reno: drones.

More than 200,000 people are expected to attend the annual air races, which ends a five-day run Sunday. The three-day drone competition, called the Small UAS Challenge, ends Sunday, as well.

It features a variety of small, unmanned aerial systems, and tests different skills.

The competition features an obstacle course, a time trial and a dead lift, and will test speed, agility and strength. The drones must be able to take off and land vertically, and can be no bigger than 36 inches in major axis and 10 pounds.

“(It) is a thrill for us and is something that our fans won’t be able to see anywhere else in the world,” Mike Major, chairman of the Reno Air Racing Association, said in a statement. “This is a one-of-a-kind chance for people to get up close and personal with this technology in a fun and challenging environment.”

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University-Worldwide based in Daytona Beach, Fla., is staging the drone competition with a limited field of 20 private and commercial entrants.

Embry-Riddle officials said they created the Small UAS Challenge as a way to promote and recognize the emerging unmanned aerial systems industry.

Late last year, Nevada was selected by federal officials as one of six states to serve as a national testing site for drone technology. Nevada officials hope the fledgling industry can be a boon to the economy.

Nearly 120 pilots are competing in six classes of aircraft in the National Championship Air Races. During the races, pilots fly wingtip-to-wingtip, as low as 50 feet off the sagebrush, on an oval path around pylons, with distances and speeds depending on the class of aircraft.

The competition has been the site of tragedy.

On Monday, a 64-year-old retired Air Force fighter pilot from California was killed in a plane crash while attempting to qualify for the air races. Lee Behel of San Jose died when his GP-5 went down at Stead Airport north of Reno.

In 2011, a plane crashed in a grandstand at the air races and killed 11 people. Dozens more were injured.

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