When the Virginia Tech Drone Park opened last spring, the high-speed aerial acrobatics of the university’s drone racing team earned acclaim from the audience. Now, the team is hosting a full-fledged drone race in the park on Sept. 21 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

There’s no cost to attend the family-friendly event; limited parking will be available in the Duck Pond Overflow Lot.

“The team really enjoys the opportunity to get folks involved who may have never experienced drones before,” said Nicholas Zielinski, the team’s captain. “Whether you’re a hobbyist or just passing through, I feel like there is always something new to learn.”

Ten current members of the team will be participating in the race, but it’s also open to anyone who’d like to try their hand at drone racing (and owns a drone that can transmit video at 25 milliwatts). For information on how to register to compete, email vtdronepark@vt.edu

“This is the type of event that community members of all backgrounds can enjoy together,” said Sarah Macey, the Drone Park’s operations and training manager. “It’s a chance to experience a new sport while learning about all the resources available through Virginia Tech to anyone interested in drones.”  

Drone racing burst onto the U.S. sports scene around 2015 and quickly found a dedicated following — the largest league has more than 27,000 registered drone racers internationally, and pro matches are broadcast on major cable networks. 

Virginia Tech’s team was born in 2016, when two drone enthusiasts decided to turn their hobby into a sport. Today, the team averages between 20 and 25 active members, and for the past two years they’ve been the first to qualify for the national competition of the Collegiate Drone Racing Association. They regularly appear near the top of the association’s leaderboard.   

The team takes full advantage of the Virginia Tech Drone Park for their practices — 36,000 square feet of flight space offer plenty of latitude for their lightning-fast maneuvers around obstacles and through hairpin turns. But they’re not the only group that has benefited from the facility.

More than 2,000 people passed through the park in its first year, including faculty and graduate researchers, a Daisy Scout troop, and hundreds of engineering students testing their own aircraft designs. The 85-foot-high net — the tallest in the country — provides an enclosed environment with fewer restrictions than open airspace, where experimental concepts can be tested safely and new pilots can learn the ropes. 

Anyone interested in using the park — including the public, as well as members of the Virginia Tech community — can contact vtdronepark@vt.edu to learn more about the process and schedule time on the calendar. The park, which also has classroom and lab space in an adjacent building, maintains a small collection of drones for users who don’t have their own, and park staff members conduct hands-on training for anyone wanting to learn.

But coming to the race is one way to see what drone racing — and the drone park — is all about. 

“This event is a great opportunity to get some family and friends together to try something completely different than your typical Saturday,” Macey said.  

— Written by Amy Robertson