How drone racing teaches suburban kids about match, science

The next generation of drone racers could be doing their homework right now.

Already gaining popularity among adults, the sport of racing small four-motored drones around obstacles and through gates is making its way to kids across the suburbs through a Palatine man's league called Go Drone X.

Gregg Novosad is in his second year offering drone competitions to students who have worked during club meetings to learn to fly through a technology called FPV, or first-person view. The setup allows racers to view a screen or put on a pair of goggles and watch a live video feed from their drone, as if they're onboard.

Novosad said his league aims to train students in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills needed to fix a common problem: broken drones.

"Keeping these drones flying is critical," said Novosad, whose 16-year-old son, Brett, is involved in racing. "Kids aren't necessarily good. They break these things ... So that's step 1 of STEM - how do you fix it?"

Novosad has created a 15-hour curriculum for drone club coaches, including exercises to explain FPV flight and lessons on repair.

Each $250 kit he advises participants buy through a hobby shop or online supplier includes parts to help fix broken propellers or motors.

Finding supplies can be a bit tricky, but a few suburban shops are getting in on the business. Good Venture Drones in Hoffman Estates, Heli-Nation in Naperville and FPV Racing Hobbies all sell drone-related gear, although Heli-Nation is online only.

The second annual Scholastic Championship on April 21 at Quest Academy in Palatine featured competitors from the host school as well as Westgate Elementary in Arlington Heights, Palatine High School and New Trier High School in Winnetka.

Novosad said he plans on mailing information to 200 schools across the region this summer, hoping to get more involved with hosting drone clubs and participating in tournaments.

On two courses - varsity and a less-challenging junior varsity - student teams of two aimed to complete the most laps in eight minutes. Novosad gave teams a sketch of the course two weeks in advance so they could practice on a similar setup.

"Designing courses is a ton of fun," he said. "You don't need fancy stuff to fly through."

With kids and drones, he said, the trick is keeping them interested in the science and mechanics of constantly evolving technology; the thrill of flight sells itself.

"The fun of FPV is putting those goggles on," Novosad said.

"That never gets boring."

Gates and obstacles make up each lap of a drone racing course, sketched here so participants in the second annual Go Drone X Scholastic Championship earlier this month in Palatine could practice before competing. Courtesy of Go Drone X
  The course for the second annual Go Drone X Scholastic Championship included obstacles, gates and lights for student pilots to navigate as they aimed to complete the most laps in a set amount of time. The race in April took place at Quest Academy in Palatine. Brian Hill/
  Nick Hansen, 18, of Winnetka pilots his drone during the Go Drone X Scholastic Championship using first-person view goggles, referred to in the sport of drone racing as FPV. Quest Academy in Palatine hosted the course for the second annual Scholastic Championship on April 21. Brian Hill/
  Student racers in the Go Drone X Scholastic Championship sometimes race a small type of drone called a "tiny whoop." Brian Hill/
  Carmen Wooten, 10, of Arlington Heights, looks to her drone racing partner known only as "Rotor" as they compete earlier this month in the second annual Go Drone X Scholastic Championship, a drone race hosted at Quest Academy in Palatine. Brian Hill/
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