Racing drones take flight in Fayetteville

Racing drones take flight in Fayetteville

Thirteen drone racing pilots descended on Gino's Cheese Steak & Onion to test their skills.
Published: February 24, 2020 | Updated: February 25th, 2020 at 2:08 pm
drone racing
Susan Smith placed fifth in Pennsylvania's most recent statewide drone racing championship.

The buzz of propellers spinning at thousands of revolutions per minute. Blinking lights and neon-colored obstacles hanging from the ceiling. TV screens relaying video from four different on-board cameras at the same time.

On Saturday, Gino’s Cheese Steak & Onion, a Fayetteville sports bar primarily known for serving up savory tastes and smells, put the sights and sounds of indoor drone racing on display for its customers.

“It wasn’t disconcerting until one hit the refrigerator,” said a laughing Bob Gabel, who enjoyed lunch with his wife at the bar when the pilots started flying their drones overhead.

SaltCtyRacing FPV, Syracuse’s first drone racing team, organized the competition for 13 pilots from around the region. Those pilots, who range from casual hobbyists to full-blown enthusiasts, raced tiny drones around a course that organizers constructed inside the restaurant. On-board cameras on the tiny drones relay live video to pilots’ goggles, and the pilots use devices with multiple joysticks to control their drones.

Jim Krisovitch races under the moniker “JimmyProton.” He woke up in his home outside Allentown, Pennsylvania on Saturday morning and flew roughly 90 minutes in his personal plane to Syracuse to compete.

“I fly everywhere,” said Krisovitch, who lives next to a private airstrip and works as a machinist. “I try never to drive anywhere.”

After a series of practice rounds and qualifying heats, Krisovitch earned first place in the Sport Class tier. His friend Susan Smith, who met some of the SaltCtyRacing FPV crew at a race in New Jersey last month, flew up from Allentown with him to race.

“We feel nostalgia when someone comes in who’s just beginning,” said Smith, a utility company project manager. “Anyone here would give someone a battery, their goggles, a radio or anything they need. We’re just such a tight-knit community.”

Smith’s boyfriend, who couldn’t attend the race, gave her a drone as a holiday present in 2016, but she didn’t start training seriously until this past summer. She said it’s not abnormal for her to spend 20 hours each week practicing her drone racing technique.

A tiny drone sits on a smartphone.
Indoor racing drones can be smaller than the average smartphone.

“It’s almost a part time job at this point,” she admitted through a chuckle.

Electrician Matt Snow drove up from Binghamton with two other pilots to fly in Saturday’s event.

Six months ago, another pilot asked Snow to help 3D print a camera mount for a small racing drone. Since that request, Snow’s passion for the sport has blossomed. He has attended more than a dozen races and pursued an FAA certification to become a commercial drone pilot, though it’s not required to participate in indoor races with smaller drones, like Saturday’s race.

Matt Snow has built a drone racing course in his basement.

“I like to race and I just like to fly,” Snow said. “It’s like a freedom. Imagine just shrinking yourself down and being able to go anywhere you want. Once you get going, it’s just a blast.”

Saturday’s race marked the second time Gino’s Cheese Steak & Onion played host to a SaltCtyRacing FPV event.

“There’s definitely a bit of a sales spike,” said Gino’s manager Christy Richards. “Last time, I was a little nervous, but I love bringing them back. They stay here all day, hang out, have a bite to eat and bring all their friends.”

SaltCtyRacing FPV founder Jeff Grabowsky said his group is working to organize its next public race at The Hops Spot in April.

Avatar for Ian Toner

is a digital producer and reporter for The NewsHouse. He’s a broadcast and digital journalism graduate student with a special interest in hockey journalism.