Creighton Gears Up for Drone Drag Racing Tournament

Buzzy, 12-inch drones might seem wimpy in the shadow of the colossal warplanes of Restoration Hangar at the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum. But, man, can these little guys fly.

Drones are aligned side by side on launch pads like little dragsters on a strip, staring down a 260-foot runway.

Lift off. Zip. Blur.

Peaking at speeds of 80 mph, they cross the finish line in four seconds.

“They’re so fast,” said drone pilot Nye Fong, a senior at Creighton University. “It’s so easy to lose track of them if you’re not paying attention.”

In the spring, Restoration Hangar will serve as the arena for the area’s first collegiate drone drag racing tournament, hosted by Creighton.

In the meantime, the CU team will demonstrate what a drone drag race is like this Saturday at Drone Expo, a new event, at the SAC Museum.

Visitors will be exposed to drone obstacle courses, a drone workshop for kids, drag racing, helicopter rides, live music and food and booths from companies that use drones in innovative ways.

“They have progressed so rapidly,” said Ryan Cameron, Creighton’s executive director of technology, innovation, exploration and research. “Now people are using drones to plant forests, to do search and rescue operations. They serve this amazing function where you can do a lot of good in your community.”

The La Vista Police Department, which will have a drone pilot at the event, uses drones to photograph crash sites, plan parades and for general searches. The Council Bluffs Fire Department uses them to search buildings for heat signatures to identify specific locations of fires.

Creighton is launching a drone badge program for those who want to learn to fly drones and gain certification to do so. It’s a five-week program that begins Oct. 16 at a cost of $1,095 for CU students and $1,295 for nonstudents.

On Saturday, Creighton’s pilots will use an abbreviated track and slower drones to showcase their young sport and attract more college and corporate competitors.

The race scheduled for March will pit two classes — colleges and corporations — from around the region on a runway that extends from inside the hangar out into the open.

CU hopes to host 10 collegiate teams and 10 corporate teams. College teams can participate for free; corporate teams will pay an entrance fee. Racing will begin with heats, then be organized in tournament format, the winner taking a 3-D-printed trophy.

Racers will use manual controls and won’t be allowed to use first-person goggles to see the drone’s perspective. Organizers say it’ll be about skill, not how much money you pour into your drone.

“You can have the best drone out there and it’s going to depend on your launch,” said Jordan Boetcher, innovation analyst for Creighton and event organizer.

Creighton is building this competition from scratch, largely making its own rules, drawing from traditional drone racing on obstacle courses and modifying those rules to match a drag strip. Test runs have gone well so far, but not without miscues.

“I can’t honestly say we haven’t crashed it into a hangar door out there a couple of times,” Boetcher said.

Creighton hopes the March drag race will give college competitors a chance to network with the corporate teams, building relationships that might lead to jobs and even more innovation.

But at the end of the day, they’re treating it like an intercollegiate sport, smack talk and all.

“Bellevue (University) has been talking a big game,” Fong said. “I think we’ll give ’em a good race.”

Drone Expo 2017

Where: Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum, 28210 West Park Highway, Ashland, Nebraska

When: Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

What to expect: Drone drag racing, obstacle course, flight safety programs, helicopter rides, expert booths, drone workshop for kids grades 4 to 8 (registration required), cookout, live music [Click for More]