New team sport bringing people together

Five Delawareans are solidifying a place in history as members of the state’s first-ever drone racing team.

Team LiNX consists of 48-year-old old Kristen “KristKat” Nelson and 38-year-old Neil “TinMan” Little, both of Millsboro, 29-year-old Joshua “RedLeif” elder, of Smyrna, 29-year-old Waylon “AlpacaPunch” Sprowl, of Felton, and 56-year-old Barry “NewJak” Jones, of Cheswold.

Nelson and Little are neighbors in the Long Neck area and both became interested in drones around the same time. Between the two of them, they purchased some professional drones and some modular parts to build their own, and founded the racing team in February 2016. When not racing, Nelson is a professional photographer and Little works in sales. They met their team members mostly through online drone racing forums and social media.

Nelson is a bit of an anomaly in that there are very few female pilots in drone racing. Very few people that have her wealth of education and experience.

“I have some experience in mechanical, automotive, aerospace, aviation stuff,” she said.

Nelson went to a technical school for aviation maintenance and worked in that field for some time. She also has a degree in automotive and diesel mechanics.

“I never used that, but it comes in handy,” she said.

Sprowl, whom the teammates refer to as “the good-looking one,” is a former airplane pilot and now works for DelDOT. After an accident left him unable to fly planes, he found that drone racing gave him the same sensation as flying.

“As long as you’re having fun with it, it’s worth it,” he said.

elder can tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the sport and drones in general. He founded his own drone video and photo business and actively follows political activity surrounding the new technology. He’s made it his personal mission to get more people involved with the sport.

Jones is the newest member and a constable at Dover High School. He is chairman of the Cheswold Planning Commission. He’s also what elder called an “RC legend,” meaning Jones has been piloting radio-controlled models, or what some might call the original drones, for years.

Drone Racing 101

Most drone races are flown with quadcopters, or drones with four propellers. Most races are run using “first person view” – or FPV – and the operator wears goggles that allow him to see what the drone sees.

“I have photography drones,” Fielder said. “And those are very different from FPV drones. These are designed to go very fast and stream live video directly to some sort of device.”

Drones are controlled via radio. It’s a free and easy way to transmit signals, both from the remote control (also known as a transmitter) to the drone and from the drone to the goggles or another type of monitor.

“The cool thing is, when we’re out here as a group and there are a few of us up in the air, we’re all on different [radio] channels,” Fielder explained. “So someone watching could just change the channels like television” and see what each pilot sees.

However, radio signals are subject to the interference. elder said that the biggest issue in FPV drone racing right now is video transmission.

“They run into all these crazy problems,” he said. “It all depends on the strength of the transmitter. Say one guy has a 200-milliwatt transmitter and I have a 25-milliwatt transmitter. If he were to walk right in front of me with that, it could cause a blip in my video, and that could cause me to crash.”

Drone racing is such a new sport that equipment isn’t yet standardized. Rules vary from league to league, and there are many worldwide.

Fuel: batteries

“The most frustrating thing for me in this hobby is battery usage,” Fielder said. “You don’t get too much time - two or three minutes of hard racing and your batteries die.”

Drone racing competitors always have chargers on hand, and generators to power them if necessary. Even the slightest variation in battery type can mean a different charger is required, and taking the risk of charging two similar but not identical batteries can render them useless.

Drones run on lithium polymer, or lipo, batteries. Damage to lipo batteries can be catastrophic – think about those exploding cell phones and hoverboards.

“It’s a big safety issue,” Fielder said. “If [the battery] gets punctured, sometimes it ignites, and if that happens it’s like a blowtorch flying through the air. I can’t emphasize enough – if you’re going to get into this hobby, learn about safe storage and charging procedures for lipo batteries.”

Competitions

In June, Team LiNX had their first International Drone Racing Association competition at Dover International Speedway. It was their first race as a team, and elder’s and Sprowl’s first race period – Jones had yet to join.

“We didn’t place, but we learned a lot,” Little said.

The race was the first of six in a series. The next takes place in South Korea.

“That’s what sponsors are for,” Little said. “I mean, you’re looking at $10,000 or $15,000 for that trip.”

Drone racing is already a lucrative sport. Individuals and teams attract corporate sponsors that advertise on their myriad “gear,” from drone cases to transmitters to wardrobe. Leagues themselves sometimes attract sponsors too, like The Drone Racing League with its own television show on ESPN2. Nelson said she’s hoping to attract sponsors so the team can travel and raise awareness of the sport.

MultiGP is probably the largest drone racing league in the United States and Team LiNX will head to Muncie, Ind. in August for the 2017 International Open Drone Racing Festival, organized by MultiGP and the Academy of Model Aeronautics.

 “This community, they’re very open,” Nelson said. “No age groups, no gender groups. You’re here to race. None of the other stuff matters.”

If you’re interested in learning more about Team LiNX or drones in general, visit their Facebook page at facebook.com/teamlinxracing.