Fort Collins Drone Enthusiasts get sky high


by Sierra Cymes

What looks and sounds like giant insects buzz through the air every Monday morning in the yard of Lincoln Middle School. Some of the “insects” do acrobatic stalls and flips, while others zoom past full thrust at speeds of up to 40 mph disappearing over the treeline in what seems faster than any craft that size should be able to.

These are remote-controlled drones, and looking for their operators brings the eye to a lazy row of lawn chairs that make up the Fort Collins Drone Enthusiasts club.

“As you can imagine, if you get a lot of people in a closed area, things can get kind of dicey,” FCDE founder Brennan Zelener said about the meetup space. “So it’s helpful to have a big open area when you want to get people together.”

Zelener started out building “foamies,” or foam airplanes, after being inspired by a hexacopter — a helicopter with six rotors, created by robotics and design technology instructor at Lincoln Middle School Bill Maudy, who has been building drones since he was a child.

“This is just the beginning,” Maudy said. “People learning how to fly manually and realizing drones are useful. It’s just a matter of time before drones are going to be carrying pizzas and finding lost children, and also give us speeding tickets, but also evacuate a firefighter from the middle of a fire storm.”

The amount of power, range and speed depends on preference, with lighter designs making acrobatics easier, and more powerful designs giving speed and drones with more stability being able to carry precious cargo and travel long distances.

“We have a good mix of everything,” said Sam Thurlow, a fifth-year student studying geology. “There’s a lot of guys that start with pre-built stuff and then decide to build their own, and then guys who build a tricopter out of wood.”

There is no one perfect design, and once in a while a “ding” will signal the sound of a hollow metal football post getting in the way of an overly acrobatic drone.

Rick Huebner has been building drones for about a year, and has a quadcopter with a range of 10 miles.

“The battery only lasts eight minutes, so I’ve never been able to test it out,” Huebner said.

The more stable and powerful drones have the capacity to carry expensive cameras, and two popular options are either GoPros or stripped-down security cameras that allow a first person perspective.

First Person Viewer goggles take FCDE members out of their lawn chairs and into the perspective of their drones through the cameras.

“It’s totally immersive, and that’s the only view we’re getting,” Thurlow said. “So it’s almost like an out-of-body experience. After a while you get to a point where you kind of feel it in your gut like when you’re flying. If I come out of a dive, I’m feeling it. But there’s no way I’m actually like really feeling it.”

For anyone interested in trying drones, Zelener recommends either building one from scratch or buying one that is pre-built and ready to fly, and the FCDE is a valuable place to explore options.

“There are a lot of good (drone) options in the cheaper category these days, so if you don’t have as much time for building one, you can find one for very affordable that is pretty capable as well,” Zelener said. “The industry is growing very fast.”