Drones conduct surveillance and airstrikes, take pictures of crops and real estate, and soon may deliver Amazon orders and even pizza. It's only natural that people already have begun racing them.
Racing leagues have sprung up around the world, and this spring one will come to Baltimore.
Global Air Media, a Baltimore drone mapping and cinematography company, plans to launch a league for teams that will build and race the unmanned aerial vehicles. While open to adults, the Baltimore Drone Racing League is geared toward youth as a way to stoke their interest in the science and technology involved in building drones, and the potential careers available in the fast-growing field.
"They're excited just to fly, but when you can teach them and make a STEM connection, it's just invaluable," said Eno Umoh, a co-founder of Global Air Media. "These kids are going back excited to learn."
The idea is that interested teenagers and adults will sign up to participate much as they would for soccer or other sports, Umoh said.
At the same time, Global Air Media is partnering with Open Works, a nonprofit makerspace in Greenmount West, to offer a series of workshops in May that will teach youth and adults how to build and fly drones.
The pay-what-you-can workshops are intended to improve education about the increasingly popular unmanned aerial vehicles and build on Open Works' efforts to make technology and trade skills more accessible to the local community, said Will Holman, general manager of Open Works.
"The long-term vision for Open Works, the 10-year horizon, is to create a real pipeline of grassroots economic development," Holman said.
The organization opened its Greenmount West facility in September. The former warehouse houses woodworking, metal and sewing workshops; other heavy-duty equipment is available through a membership.
Holman said the organization is striving to establish a stronger connection to the community with classes that are open to the public and a mobile workshop that teaches hands-on lessons at schools.
"We're looking at this as a very broad spectrum mission here that goes beyond just the gee-whiz technology that we have in some of these shops and gets into the meaningful connections with our neighbors," Holman said.
As part of the partnership, Global Air Media will establish its headquarters at Open Works.
The company was founded in 2015 and does cinematography and mapping with drones. It also works with schools to offer after-school programs and tutorials about drones.
McDonogh School in Owings Mills worked with Global Air Media last fall to offer an after-school program that taught students how to build drones from a kit. The program also covered safety and proper use of drones — lessons Olivia Grant, the head of McDonogh's after-school programs, said are important for students as recreational drones become more common.
"Even though they were having fun, it was educational," Grant said. "It was fun with a purpose."
Commercial and recreational drone use is on the rise as the price of drone technology falls and new regulations outline their legal uses. The global market for commercial applications of drones could grow to nearly $127 billion in the near future, according to a PriceWaterhouseCoopers report last year.
In September, ESPN announced a deal to air a 10-episode series with the Drone Racing League, a U.S.-based professional league that's run races in such venues as an old power station and an abandoned mall.
The Baltimore Drone Racing League will hold its first race April 1 on an enclosed course at Open Works.
While the inaugural race will feature premade drones, a key tenet of the league in the future will be for youths to build their own drones for racing.
Umoh compared his vision for the drone racing league to other sports leagues, where local teams compete against each other and occasionally travel to race against other leagues.
Each team would have a pilot, who flies the drone by using a pair of goggles connected to a camera on the drone. A navigator is responsible for checking weather and track conditions that could affect flight. Other team members are on hand to rush out to repair damage when a drone crashes or to prepare it for the next heat.
The league will be open to youths age 13 and older, as well as to adults, Umoh said. Global Air Media is working out some details still, he said, such as fees for participating and options for reducing the cost for lower-income participants.