Interest in drone racing takes off

Alex Hawthorne at the Makerspace

Fast-flying Huskies from the University of Washington Bothell drone club put their quadcopters on display at the Pro Aerial League championship at the Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett.

The drone race March 17 was an opportunity for members of the Kwad Dawgs to see skilled performers in the high-tech sport. At a table at the event, club members showed off their drones and shared enthusiasm with the crowd, said club president Alex Hawthorne.

Hawthorne, a physics major planning to graduate in 2019, started Kwad Dawgs a year ago with friends on campus who enjoy building and flying drones (and rebuilding them after crashes). The club has two easy-to-fly drones to help newcomers lift off. Along the way, they learn about the different types of drones and their uses, such as aerial photography. Mechanical engineering Professor Pierre Mourad supports the club as its adviser.

Alex Hawthorne's drone

Drone frame made on 3D printer

Kwad Dawgs plans to participate in a campus hackathon in April, assembling drones that will be ready to fly. The club also has plans to build a drone that could be used in searches, if it gets funding. “We have a whole bunch of ideas,” said Hawthorne.

Hawthorne used a 3D printer at the UW Bothell Makerspace to build the frame of his racing drone and the arms that hold the four 5-inch blades. Hawthorne pilots his drone using a first-person-view headset. It’s connected to a camera on the drone in real time. “The goggles display what the drone is seeing,” he said. “That’s how I fly.”

Chris Seaman, Alex Hawthorne

Chris Seaman, left, Alex Hawthorne
Justin Mendoza photo

The pro league launched about a year ago as a spectator sport for arenas like the one in Everett. Team pilots zip their drones around obstacles and through gates at 60-70 mph, with LED lights that make the crafts easy to follow as they fly. “People like to come and see the crashes,” Hawthorne said. “It’s fun to watch because it’s so fast.”

Attending the race was an opportunity to participate in the experience and make contacts in the field, Hawthorne said. Kwad Dawgs would like to hold a drone race on the UW Bothell sports field when regulations permit.

For himself, Hawthorne is thinking of a possible drone-related capstone project and a career where he might combine physics and his drone-building and flying skills.

“I could see myself working in some aspect of drone racing or search and rescue,” Hawthorne said. “Or Amazon Prime deliveries,” he adds with a laugh. “There are a lot of drone aspects, not just racing, but commercial uses. I could see myself designing and producing drones.”

Alex Hawthorne tests drone inside arena

Alex Hawthorne tests his drone inside Angel of the Winds Arena. / Justin Mendoza photo

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