Drone enthusiasts compete in Bridger Cup in Bozeman

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The drone banked sharply in mid-air, its controller unable to right the small craft’s course as it crashed into the backstop netting like some kind of intoxicated bird, much to the delight of the crowd.

On Saturday the baseball field at the Gallatin County Fairgrounds was transformed into a drone raceway, with quadcopters both small and large buzzing through the sky.

“We’ll see how it goes when I go a whole lap without crashing,” said George Milheim, whose custom-built machine had just spiraled spectacularly into the grass, chunks of rotor spraying in all directions.

The contests — called first-person view, or FPV races, after the headsets that operators wear, which give them an onboard view of the flights — were part of the Bridger Cup, a two-day drone festival hosted by aviation contractor Bridger Aerospace. And while the crashes and close finishes proved exciting, the day was as much about education as competition.

“When people think ‘drone’ they think about Predators dropping bombs on terrorists,” said event organizer and Bridger Aerospace CEO Tim Sheehy. “But they don’t think about the agricultural use or public service.”

Sheehy noted that, despite their reputation, drones are often used in positive ways, such as doing crop surveys, monitoring forest fires or helping search and rescue missions.

“People have preconceived notions, but when they start working with (drones), those start getting broken down. And that’s definitely starting to happen,” he said.

Sheehy’s company has several contracts with the U.S. Forest Service and is currently looking for a new building after recently tripling its staff, something the CEO said is an indication of the growing popularity of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. Last month, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross invested $1 million in the incipient Drone Racing League, which hopes to start holding events next year.

The increased accessibility to cheaper drone technology has also added another dimension to filmmaking. Kalispell based Birds Eye of Big Sky started more than three years ago as an aerial imaging business and has since worked on projects for HBO, National Geographic and the upcoming Leonardo DiCaprio movie “The Revenant.”

“They are so versatile,” said owner Matt Ragan, who helped sponsor the weekend’s event. “(UAVs) can eliminate risk and can do highly intensive, laborious jobs much quicker and more efficient. (The industry) is going to grow exponentially.”

Ragan’s larger rig, with eight long arms connected to individual propellers and a camera stabilizing system called a gimbal on its underbelly, can fly for around 10 minutes with a range of a mile. It cost around $15,000, but cheaper drones can retail for as little as $100.

For many participants, Saturday’s races were a welcome departure from drone tradeshows, where the technology is display-only.

“There’s definitely a learning curve, but once you get through it it’s easy,” said Milheim of flying the aircraft.

“The allure is doing it first-person,” added Montana State University student Ryan Zahn. “Judging depth perception is the biggest challenge, but I like that it requires a talent to do it; you can’t just wing it.”

Sheehy, whose goal was education and exposure, said he considered the Bridger Cup a success.

“People fear what they don’t understand. The more people see it the more comfortable they will be with it,” he said. “We’ve been really pleased with the response so far.”