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  • A racing drone flies around a ...

    A racing drone flies around a course flag during drone racing practice north of Longmont on May 1, 2021. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

  • Christian Ojala, left, and Tim Ichiyasu, ...

    Christian Ojala, left, and Tim Ichiyasu, do a test run over the course during drone racing practice north of Longmont on May 1, 2021.

  • Two racing drones fly around the ...

    Two racing drones fly around the course during drone racing practice north of Longmont on May 1, 2021.

  • Christian Ojala prepares his drone for ...

    Christian Ojala prepares his drone for racing during drone racing practice north of Longmont on May 1, 2021.

  • Drone racers prepare to do some ...

    Drone racers prepare to do some test runs during drone racing practice north of Longmont on May 1, 2021.

  • LONGMONT, CO - May 1, 2021: ...

    A racing drone flies around a course flag during a recent drone racing practice north of Longmont on May 1. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

  • LONGMONT, CO - May 1, 2021: ...

    Tim Ichiyasu prepares his drone for racing during drone racing practice north of Longmont on May 1, 2021. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

  • A racing drone flies around a ...

    A racing drone flies around a course flag during drone racing practice north of Longmont on May 1, 2021.

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On a recent warm Saturday afternoon Tim Ichiyasu prepared for takeoff.

After strapping on a pair of goggles connected to a live stream camera mounted onto a drone, he launched into the air. The Englewood resident zipped around a field just northeast of Longmont, swooping between the poles set up in an obstacle course and dipping through a hoop suspended in the air — the mechanical whir of the speeding drone, humming in the background.

“Flying a (first-person-view) drone, once you get used to it, is very much like being a bird,” Ichiyasu said. “It’s the experience of human flight that I suspect the Wright brothers really wanted. You can do some of the things you wouldn’t do with a manned aircraft. You will see people flying 90 mph through concrete gaps and (doing) power loops.”

Ichiyasu competes in the Drone Racing League and is the world’s fourth fastest racer. He said the league is like the National Football League of drone racing.

The practice Saturday was part of Ichiyasu’s preparation for an upcoming leg of a national tournament series, which is slated to take place in Boulder County. The Freedom Spec race, part of the MultiGP’s drone racing league, will start around 11 a.m. May 22 at the Hart Complex FPV Track, a private property, located at 12052 Vermillion Road, near Longmont. A second event, the inaugural DRSL Spec race will also take place around 11 a.m. May 23 at the same location. The races are expected to go throughout the day on both days.

While spectators are allowed to come and watch the race for no cost, they are asked to respect the property and be aware that parking space is limited. Pilots interested in competing can sign up to buy a ticket at: bit.ly/33Bfl1e.

What is drone racing and why Boulder County?

Much like any other race, drone racing competitors go head-to-head in a heat of other racers to get the best time. But in drone racing, pilots are navigating through an obstacle course and wearing goggles connected to a live stream video feed on the drone that gives them a first-person-view of the flight.

Longmont’s Ben Hildreth is the president of the drone racing chapter, The Other Guys. The chapter includes roughly 60 members across northern Colorado. Hildreth has been involved in drone racing for about four years, after he got hooked flying a drone and following an internet trail of information on the craft of racing.

This year, Hildreth advocated for a tournament to take place on his home Boulder County turf so that the chapter could show the community what drone racing looks like, while addressing a stigma that hovers around recreational drone usage.

“It went from just a bunch of people racing on their own a few years ago to now we’re trying to organize these bigger and more visually appealing (events),” Hildreth said. “We want to show more people what we’re doing because… there was a big stigma around drones and people spying. We just try to show there is infinite amount of fun that offsets the negative.”

The drones are built and designed by the racers, and according to Hildreth, can reach close to 100 mph.

“A lot of the stuff that you can purchase from (big box stores) is fairly governed as far as how much roll or pitch and where you can take it,” Hildreth said. “Since we pretty much build everything ourselves and use open source software to fly them, we have full control to go inverted or (fly) through open gates and do basically what we want with them.”

Freddy Jean , a Thornton resident and secretary for The Other Guys, said the drones fall under recreational usage, so a Part 107, a Federal Aviation Administration remote pilot certificate, isn’t required to fly them, unless they’re racing professionally. Recreational pilots also have to follow certain regulations, like flying within line of sight and remaining below 400 feet, which GPS equipment on the drone can help track.

Safety precautions on the race track include having spotters watch the line of sight for each pilot and installing netting that blocks the course from a nearby dirt road. The private property owner, who is allowing the use the space, had a family member involved in the sport and wanted to give the local chapter a place to practice, Hildreth said.

Getting involved

For Ichiyasu, a path to the sport started with a YouTube video in 2012 or 2013.

The video showed drones dodging trees as they raced through a forest. Ichiyasu said it was the first time he had ever seen first-person view drone racing. From there, he continued to learn about the sport and how to assemble a drone for the sport.

“I purchased my first drone and flew terribly,” Ichiyasu said. “It was a crazy experience for me to be like, ‘I just built something and it flew and no one taught me to do that.’”

He continued to hone his skill, but every time he packed up his gear to join a local race, he was overcome with doubt about his preparedness. His wife encouraged him to finally try his first race with a local chapter. It only took a moment for Ichiyasu to realize he was in the right place.

“It looked like a car meet with RC drones,” he said. “It was a nerd’s dream. I was in heaven. I was like, ‘I’m doing this every single weekend.’”

Ichiyasu began competing as a professional Drone Racing League pilot last year, but has competed as an amateur since 2017. He said what he loves most about the sport is how it brings people from a variety of ages and backgrounds together.

“It draws people together so well,” Ichiyasu said. “It’s very much like playing online video games. In the same way, you’re interacting with people all over the world. The same thing happens here, but because we’re tied to something physical, we’re incentivized to go and meet each other.”

Ichiyasu isn’t the only renowned racer who will be coming to Boulder County to race that weekend. Two-time world champion Evan Turner will also be in attendance. Turner is also a Drone Racing League competitor.

The Freedom Spec national championship tournament series started in Dallas, Texas on April 11 and will wrap up with finals on the weekend of July 4 in Moberly, Mo. Ichiyasu said he looks forward to reconnecting with out-of-town friends and getting the chance to race against them.

“This is a really awesome way for people to come together across walks of life,” Ichiyasu said, “and be able to enjoy something in common. It may seem like something that’s intimidating to get into, but it’s not because of the awesome community of people that are always willing to help.”

LONGMONT, CO - May 1, 2021: ...
A racing drone flies around a course flag during a recent drone racing practice north of Longmont on May 1.(Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

 

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