USAFA takes to the skies in upcoming collegiate drone competition

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COLORADO SPRINGS — It’s a competition like no other.

“It’s kind of like playing Mario Kart,” said U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet 3rd Class Caleb Davis.

“Top speed for these systems is somewhere on the order of 70 to 80 mile an hour,” said Colonel Brian Neff.

USAFA will be the first service academy to start racing drones in collegiate competitions.

“What we were looking for is a fun way to introduce students to this technology and get them excited about then hopefully doing additional research and solving some really big problems for the Department of Defense and the United States,” said Neff.

Neff helped start the Model Engineering Club and Drone Racing Team nine months ago. Now, they’re prepping for the Collegiate Drone Racing Association Championships, where more than 30 schools compete.

“This year the Air Force Academy is one of nine schools that’s already qualified for that race in April,” Neff said.

For now, the team is made up of seven cadets who race.

They describe it as playing a video game.

“The FPV camera, which is linked to a video transmitter and a video antenna back here, that transmits the signal out into the open. And these right here, there’s a video receiver inside that picks up that signal once you turn to that specific channel,” said Cadet 3rd Class David Villarreal.

Cadets say they typically practice once a day, but sometimes more.

“A lot of nights without sleep and homework and such, but it’s a lot of fun and it’s a great time,” Davis said.

And every drone is modified to each cadet’s needs.

“I’ve changed the props a lot, going from a different pitched sized propeller to increased flight performance, see how different things work to maximize the flight performance during racing, see what works, what gets me around corners faster and better,” Villarreal said.

It’s skills USAFA believes will help cadets in the future.

“When they graduate here they’ll go on to fly various different systems. Some of those will be what we call small UAS or Unmanned Aerial Systems. Additionally, we do research in many of our departments at the U.S. Air Force Academy with small UAS,” Neff said.

“An an electric engineering major we have a capstone project, and drones is a part of the project that I want to do. And I thought joining the club would be a lot of fun and a lot of good experience getting into that,” Davis said.

And crashing isn’t out of the question.

“Crashing is part of this hobby and if you’re not crashing it means you’re not flying hard enough,” Villarreal said.

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