Drones in the Desert

Originally published in the Summer 2019 issue of SPOKE+BLOSSOM



Drone racing has been rapidly gaining popularity throughout the nation, with thousands of racers showing up at fields, parks and arenas to display their skills. It is one of those rare phenomena that combines the highest of technologies, psychological skills, athletic abilities and even art. It is mesmerizing to watch.

Three years ago, a few drone advocates, members of the Grand Junction Modeleers flying club and the Academy of Model Aeronautics asked, “Why not here?” At that time, there were no official or sanctioned drone races in western Colorado.

The club partnered with The Other Guys (TOG) First Person View (FPV) Drone Racing Club in Longmont to bring this sport to the Grand Valley. TOG is considered one of the best flying clubs in the country. They had the expertise, andthe GJ Modeleers had the perfect place — a 17-acre field with no trees, no power lines and lots of parking just off of 32 Road on Whitewater Hill. Drones in the Desert (DITD) was born.

The first year hosted 25 pilots with cash prizes and lots of free food. The racers were challenged by the desert environment, but the event was so much fun that all agreed DITD was one of the best races in Colorado. The second year hosted 37 pilots, more free food and a mountain bike giveaway.

Now the third annual Drones in the Desert is scheduled for August 31 - September 1. More than 45 entrants are expected. Local racers will be joined by pros and amateurs from the Eastern Slope, Wyoming and Utah, vying for $600 in prize money. TOG will return to provide equipment and tech know-how.

This year the event will also host a demonstration from the Drone Championship League’s Quadforce 1, a national racing team. Co-chairs are Sherry Ficklin and Vicki Felmlee.

“We are really excited to have members of Quadforce 1 come to DITD,” says Ficklin, “They’ll bring a level of adrenaline and knowledge that is going to be amazing.”

All racers build their own drones and combine custom computer coding with FPV goggles so that they can “see” what the drone is seeing. Reaching speeds of 80 to 100 miles-per-hour, drones veer and slice the air, through, over and undergates and obstacles. The racer and drone work as one. Races are monitored by human watchers, but because drones move with a lightning blur, they are also wired into computers that track speed and accuracy from gate to gate. If a dronehits or misses a gate, the computer catches it and penalties are deducted from the score.

At only 19, Jonathan Ficklin of Grand Junction is one of the rising stars in professional drone racing. He was tapped by the prestigious Drone Champions League and has already competed in European events. His future plans are to compete all around the world, continue to grow the sport, and “do all [he] can to make a living doing it, because it’s what [he] love[s] to do.”

DITD is free to the public. Spectators are encouraged to ask the racers questions. Visit dronesinthedesert.com or their page on facebook.com/Dronesinthedesert.