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New sport on target to zip through Van Andel Arena

Drone racing’s Great Lakes Cup will showcase racers at speeds up to 80 mph as organizers look to build fan base.

July 21, 2017
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drone-racing course
The racing drones will navigate a course covering many sections of Van Andel Arena featuring brightly lit portals through which the machines must pass. Courtesy FPV Racing Events

This fall, drone pilots from across the country will have clearance to buzz Van Andel Arena.

The growing sport of drone racing, which has been featured on national broadcast networks like ESPN, is coming to Grand Rapids on Sept. 22-24. “Unforeseen circumstances” necessitated the Great Lakes Cup Drone Racing Championship & Expo be pushed back from its original July 21-23 date, but event officials are hard at work crafting an event the likes of which are new to West Michigan.

Watervliet-based Great Lakes Drone Company, the organization behind the event, is working with First Person View Racing’s Joe Scully, who is designing a racecourse through the arena that “will be something that the other indoor racing arenas have not seen before,” Great Lakes Drone Company Marketing and Sales Director Reyna Price said.

“Inside the arena, the main floor will be for the racers with netting around the first few rows and spectators sitting in the upper deck so they can look down and see the racing,” Price said. “But the benefit of having this in an arena is we have the (video) screen and media capabilities, so spectators can see what the racers do in a first-person point of view.”

Drone racing involves several racers piloting radio-controlled aircraft through a series of obstacles and checkpoints either outside or in an arena setting at high speeds — up to 80 mph — according to GLDC. Pilots wear first-person goggles that allow them to see from the drone’s perspective, which is a primary visual angle used on broadcasts of the sport.

“That’s what gets a fan into the sport is that first-person aspect really bringing them into the whole three-dimensional level,” Price said. “So having those capabilities (for spectators) at Van Andel is going to be huge.”

Outdoor drone racing can be more limited, as federal regulations dictate how high drones can soar, while racing in an arena can sometimes see the drones zip in and out of the main floor, through the concourse and into a net at the finish line.

Price said GLDC is hoping for at least 100 racers for the inaugural Great Lakes Cup, and the company is expecting about 1,000 visitors on each of the event’s three days. About 25 racers have registered from all over the country, and at least one pilot is from Australia, Price said.

She added that while drone racing is “huge” on the West Coast of the United States, there have been fewer opportunities for avid drone pilots to showcase their skills in the Midwest and on the East Coast. The hope is the Van Andel event will provide that opportunity and spur more interest in the sport, particularly among female racers, an underrepresented demographic in the drone racing world.

“The opportunity is there, the market is ready to highlight this event and the timing works out to tap into this market while the sport still sort of is in its infancy stage,” Price said.

Qualifying races will take place throughout the weekend and the championship race will be held Sunday. Price said the various partners involved with putting on the Great Lakes Cup, including FPV Racing and Van Andel Arena, are excited about the possibilities of expanding the sport in West Michigan and putting on a new and exciting event for the region. She added marketing has been focused in the Grand Rapids area as well as in southwest Michigan and South Bend, Indiana, area to draw more racers to West Michigan.

“The reason drone racing is so thrilling and becoming popular is that it’s something anyone can get into — you don’t have to be a techie to get into flying drones,” Price said. “I think it’s a great opportunity for Grand Rapids in terms of bringing people to the area, for expanding the sport, and we’re looking forward to putting on what hopefully will become a yearly event.”

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