New drone race takes over century-old Charlotte factory

Drones can cost several hundred dollars, not including the goggles and controllers required to fly.
Drones can cost several hundred dollars, not including the goggles and controllers required to fly. tcfleming@charlotteobserver.com

A 100-year-old former denim factory in Charlotte, with dusty floors and rustic metal infrastructure, was transformed into a modern drone racing arena Saturday, complete with LED lights shining through the dimly lit facility.

More than 45 racers from around the United States competed for a chance to qualify for a national tournament in New York this August.

The Charlotte race had qualifying rounds in the morning, followed by elimination rounds in the afternoon. The top two racers would qualify for nationals.

Brothers Miller and Lacy Morrow planned the event out of a shared love from the sport, despite Lacy living in California.

The brothers wanted to host the event in Charlotte where Miller lives and found the location through the help of a family friend, local woodworker Damon Barron. The brothers wanted to use Barron’s workshop as the venue.

“You don’t need my workshop,” Barron said, “you need to see my warehouse.”

Drone racing uses quad-copter machines,with four propellers and about the size of a hard-back book.

The drones can reach speeds in excess of 80 mph. A racer uses a small camera on the drone and goggles to navigate as the drones navigate through many obstacles.

Drones can cost several hundred dollars, with most racers preferring to customize their own.

The race was held at Savona Mill. A cooling fan was placed near the racers so the heat in the un-air-conditioned warehouse did not distract them from the race.

When the drones first took flight, the air from the propellers swept the dust off the floor. The drones sped down a straight-away towards the first curve.

Bright green and white lights on the floor helped the racers navigate. The drones had to fly over or under blue obstacles that were positioned several feet in the air.

The race had several sharp curves, and an added obstacle of metal support-poles all around the track. Drones could potentially run into these and break a propeller.

During the qualifying rounds, hitting a pole and having the drone tip over was not the end for a racer. A volunteer would dodge the speeding drones to flip the fallen one over and get it racing again. In the elimination round, a crash typically meant game over.

Matt Sidewater drove eight hours with his Ohio team, the Cleveland Quad Squad, to be at the race. He said his team practiced weekly to prepare for the event. “We are going to do our best and make Cleveland proud,” he said.

Chris Wesley attended to support his friend in the race. This was his first drone race, but he came in expecting one thing.

“Craziness, lot’s of craziness,” he said.

Tyler Fleming: 704-358-5355, @tyler_fleming96