Fargo-Moorhead drone racers discover speed thrills

Pilot Ian McIntyre of Fargo, N.D., maneuvers his drone during a race.
Pilot Ian McIntyre of Fargo, N.D., maneuvers his drone during a race at M.B. Johnson Park in Moorhead, Minn.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

Maybe it's the rush of flying while your feet are firmly planted on the ground, or the sensation of hurtling across the sky, knowing it's not the end of the world if you crash.

Whatever the motivation, drone racing is taking off into a rapidly growing worldwide sport driven by pilots, thrill seekers and tinkerers in places like Fargo-Moorhead.

"It's the closest you can get to, I guess, actual racing in cars and stuff — without the problem of dying, possibly," drone racer Gary Ferguson said during a recent meetup at a Moorhead park.

The pilots stand on the grass but they feel like they're flying the tiny aircraft that just took off. They wear special goggles — all they see is the video from a camera on board their drone. The idea is to get through the course as many times as possible in two minutes. Crashes are common, but repairs are quick and they're back racing.

Heads bob and turn and fingers work controls as they try to fly their drones through gates and around flags on a course about the size of a football field.

Quad Squad Fargo-Moorhead
Drone racing is taking off into a rapidly growing worldwide sport driven by pilots, thrill seekers and tinkerers in places like Fargo-Moorhead.
Courtesy of Quad Squad Fargo-Moorhead

"OK, you come to the first gate like this, then you fly over the second gate, and then come back from the other way," Ian McIntyre said as he explained the course layout to another racer as they flew their crafts and watched the drone video.

"If you've ever thought to yourself, you know, what would it be like to be a bird flying around the trees and over the landscape, that's what this gives you," said Tony Bjerke, who started Quad Squad Fargo-Moorhead a couple of years ago. The name refers to the four-propeller copters the racers fly.

The machines are about a foot across and they zip around the course so quickly they're hard to follow.

"You know, it feels like you're doing 100 miles an hour," he said. "Well, guess what, you're actually doing 100 miles an hour because these things fly that fast."

'Tinkerers at heart'

Pilot Tony Bjerke of Fargo prepares his drone and related gear for a race.
Pilot Tony Bjerke of Fargo, N.D., prepares his drone and related gear for a race. Bjerke and other racers say it costs roughly $1,200 for all the equipment to get started in the sport, but many spend a lot more.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

Bjerke launched the group a couple of years ago after he started flying drones and learned about drone racing leagues, which have exploded in recent years. MultiGP, which calls itself the largest professional drone racing league in the world, says it has more than 1,250 chapters and 23,000 pilots worldwide.

Sponsors paid for the gates and flags the Moorhead club uses to set up race courses. Companies are increasingly interested in sponsoring drone racers and putting up prize money for regional and national events

The sport's grown steadily in Fargo-Moorhead as drone enthusiasts hear about the club. There are about three dozen members currently, mostly men with a few women.

A pair of drones dot the sky during a race.
A pair of drones dot the sky during a race.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

They have a range of ages and experience. Some are clearly nerds who love to build and fix and improvise with technology. But they all seem transfixed by the experience of feeling like they are flying.

"Most of us are all tinkerers at heart," said Bjerke. "This is just another thing to tinker with and wrench-on and do that stuff."

The Fargo-Moorhead club members race against each other, but also race clubs in the Twin Cities, Duluth and Grand Forks, N.D. Tens of thousands of drone racers are registered with drone racing leagues across the country. The ultimate prize is a national championship.

Members of the FM Quad Squad use drones with four propellers for races.
Members of the FM Quad Squad use drones with four propellers for races like those held most Thursday evenings at M.B. Johnson Park.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

The racers say it costs about $1,200 for all the gear to get started in the sport, but many spend a lot more. For some, it's as much about building as it is about racing.

'Two minutes out of the wheelchair'

Ferguson flew radio controlled aircraft for 25 years. It could be an expensive hobby. A crash could wreck a $1,500 aircraft. When his drone crashes, he usually just picks it up, checks for broken propellers and is ready to fly again. Everything he needs is in a backpack.

Ferguson is an accomplished drone flyer, but he says he can't keep up with kids who grew up on video games.

"The speed at which they fly these things is just mind-blowing, I can't even follow them," he said. You know, it's watching their video and just going, 'Yeah, I'm out.' I'm probably mediocre, but it's just so much fun."

Pilot Shawn Spears of Moorhead, Minn., maneuvers his drone during a race.
Pilot Shawn Spears of Moorhead maneuvers his drone during a race.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

McIntyre has raced radio controlled cars or planes before, but said the the virtual experience of racing a drone from the cockpit with video goggles is a tremendous adrenaline rush.

"It's ridiculous how a little tiny toy basically can give you the shakes," he said. "You're saying in your mind, 'Relax. Just fly. Stop being an idiot and shaking. Just fly.' It's so much fun. It's, it's racing."

One of the racers hunched over his controller on this evening thought he'd never race again.

Darrin Devine grew up racing motorcycles,"and then I broke my neck, became a quadriplegic doing motor cross races.

"Racing has always been something I enjoy doing a lot and it's absolutely like being racing again," he said of the drone contests. "You get the same type of adrenaline rush. It's the two minutes out of the wheelchair, having fun being just another racer."

When racers were called to the starting line, Devine wheeled away, ready to zip through the sky for another two minutes of adrenaline fueled freedom.

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