On Sunday, a little more than a soccer field’s length away from a child’s birthday party and other families enjoying park amenities, five men sat in folding chairs in Red Ridge Park in southwest Las Vegas.
Each wore a pair of virtual reality-style goggles, with their hands clutching thick and heavy controllers. Pairs of thumbs moved two sticks in sometimes opposite directions, controlling drones that buzzed through an obstacle course at speeds of up to 100 mph.
About 30 members and nonmembers of the Las Vegas Drone club, ages between 20 and 53, showed up to the group’s annual King of Las Vegas FPV, or first-person view, tournament.
The goggles show a pilot real-time, first-person video from a camera mounted on the drone itself.
Heats of about five pilots raced drones at a time through an obstacle course made up of flags, cones and PVC pipe frames. The fastest lap time was 35.34 seconds.
“It’s like having the flying feeling without risking my life,” said Björn Kremer, who ultimately came in 12th place, missing the $350, $250 and $150 in cash prizes that went to the first, second and third-place winners. Twenty-two pilots were in the running.
Kremer lives near Frankfurt, Germany, but comes to town every so often for job training. He first learned of the Las Vegas drone club last August through Facebook, and he checked with the group to see if there were any events or races he could attend during his stay, as he did this trip.
‘Redheaded stepchild’ hobby
The drone club started in 2013 as a group of about eight guys who would meet at the El Dorado Dry Lake Bed in Boulder City to fly drones they built from parts they ordered from China.
Chris Cernuto, the event coordinator and founder of the club, said over time interest in quadcopters, or what he called “the redheaded stepchild of the RC (radio control) community” grew, with upward of 75 people coming to events.
The popularity of the group was becoming a liability, Cernuto said. “We didn’t have any insurance or protections … How will we be taken seriously?”
Cernuto wasn’t alone.
In 2015, Florida-based Chris Thomas saw this was a national trend, and he founded MultiGP, a business to help provide structure for drone races and guidance for event organizers to help to grow drone racing into a sport.
MultiGP has since grown into a community of about 17,000 pilots with 500 different chapters all over the world.
Cernuto registered the club as a chapter of MutliGP in early 2015 and became private and membership dues-based last September. Shortly after, the group became chartered by the Academy of Model Aeronautics, which offers insurance and guidance on safety.
“We get to now produce high-level racers that are coming out and getting sponsored, going to different races around the country and winning big, big cash prizes,” Cernuto said.
Little drone, big aspirations
Cernuto and other member of the Las Vegas Drone club have big hopes for the club, including:
■ Producing competitive drone racers.
■ Working with the city of Las Vegas to get a permanent exclusive space to hold drone races.
■ Working with the community, higher education and K-12 schools to introduce drone education.
■ Positioning Las Vegas as the global destination of choice for drone racing.
“We’re starting a new program where we’re going to basically set up once a month in a downtown area and offer free drone training to the public, including to kids,” Cernuto said, adding that he is still looking to secure venues. “We want them to learn on a $15 toy, see if they like it and, if they like, come join our junior pilot program.”
The program is in its infancy and aims to pair kids with mentors.
“Kids in between the ages of 12 and 16 years old are doing the best in drone races right now because of their hand-eye coordination and their reaction time,” he said.
The Las Vegas Drone Club is hosting a free event on Saturday at the RedFlint Experience Center in downtown Las Vegas to introduce the club and its programs to the public. The club will have mini drones available for attendees to experiment with and will host an indoor micro drone race for attendees to watch.
“I believe drones have so much good and can bring so much good to Las Vegas, not only in the betting world and bringing big events into town, but as far as STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) activities to teach these kids,” he said.
Cernuto has been meeting with officials from the city of Las Vegas, UNLV and the Clark County School District to further those goals.
Room for two
The Las Vegas Drone club is one of two MultiGP chapters in Las Vegas. The LV-DroneRs registered as a MultiGP in June 2015.
Joseph Perez, the LV-DronRs’ drone race coordinator, said his club is primarily focused on the mission of MultiGP, which is exposing and involving as many as people as possible to and with, though he said he too is working to secure a permanent and exclusive space for drone pilots to race.
Between 10 and 15 people come to the club’s bimonthly racing events, he said.
He sees the sport as a great equalizer, given its relatively low barrier to entry. Anybody can learn to fly, he said.
One ultimate goal
The two groups, the Las Vegas Drone Club amd the LV-DronRs started as one large community of hobbyists, but a rift in visions led to two groups and ultimately to two local national chapters.
Shawn O’Sullivan, a spokesman for MultiGP, said it is becoming more common to have more than one city chapter as the hobby grows in popularity.
“One of the great benefits of having several large chapters is that it gives them the ability to have decent sized events every single weekend without putting too much stress on one organizer,” O’Sullivan said.
He said MultiGP is open to different organizers looking at the drone sport differently and going in different directions. After all, each organizer is trying to end up in the same place, he said, “which is to get people out there to check out MultiGP, put on a pair of goggles, and take a flight with us.”
Contact Nicole Raz at email@example.com or 702-380-4512. Follow @JournalistNikki on Twitter.
Drones aren’t just for men
Stefani Morris said she hopes to join Las Vegas Drone Club races within the next six months.
“These guys are willing to help you with whatever you need. There are so many beginners who come and learn and then get into it.”