ATLANTIC CITY — When Anthony Gennello pulls a set of first-person view goggles over his eyes, he can see exactly what the camera on his drone sees — the beach, the Boardwalk and the ocean, all while traveling 80 to 100 mph and standing completely still at the same time.
“When you’re in the driver’s seat, you’re like a bird,” said Gennello, a pilot who goes by the handle “Blitz,” during a spec wing drone racing event Saturday on the beach at South New Hampshire Avenue.
The event, hosted by International Drone Racing Limited, drew 45 pilots from across the U.S. and Canada, said Richard Rodriguez, race director for the league. Over two days of racing, they’ll compete for a $16,000 prize purse divided among the top 10 pilots.
Jason Kilpatrick, 38, of Virginia Beach, flys his Spec Wing drone during a lunch break at the races on the beach in Atlantic City. His drone handle is “veganaut,” he said, because he flies things and is also a vegan. @ThePressofAC pic.twitter.com/5tU3gCJb4J— Molly Bilinski (@ACPressMollyB) June 15, 2019
However, racing on the beach caused issues, from sand getting into motors to drones landing in the water to wind knocking down inflatable pylons that mapped out the course.
“If it wasn’t for the wind, it’d be perfect,” Rodriguez said. “But it adds another variable that (pilots) weren’t thinking about.”
However, as the afternoon winds gusted up to 45 mph, Rodriguez called the event a few hours early, about 3 p.m., citing safety concerns for the beachgoers near them.
Gennello said it’s like “flying in a fluid that moves” when describing the way the wind affects the drone’s flight. Working with the sand is tricky, and salt water and electronics don’t really mix, he said.
But several of the pilots said the event was more about the camaraderie among the members of the flying community and spreading the word that drones aren’t just a hobby but a way to learn about physics and engineering.
Shelby Voll, 45, of Raleigh, North Carolina, has been racing drones for five years, he said. In between races, he worked on his drone under a pop-up tent on the beach.
Before the competition, each pilot builds their drone from the same kit, leveling the racing field, he explained.
“Can you pilot the drone better than the rest?” Voll asked. “It’s more about your skill than the equipment.”
He enjoys coming together with the aircraft community, he said, who he sees regularly at other competitions throughout the country, comparing it to a NASCAR event.
“It’s just like racing,” he said. “You have a pit crew and a group working with you.”
Gennello used to drive in street and drag races before his son was born, he said. He wanted to try a less dangerous sport with the same speeds and found drone racing about five years ago.
“I’ve always been racing something or another,” he said, smiling. “Boys and their toys, you know?”
But he said he takes as much as he gets from the sport, using ideas he gets from building and racing drones in his work building computer data centers.
“A lot of families tend to concentrate on soccer, football,” said Gennello, who shares racing with his 14-year-old son. “All the stuff you learn here lends itself to a career in tech.”
In addition to racing, a few of the pilots said they enjoy freestyling, or flying their drones just for fun and uploading videos they make to YouTube or other social media so other people can experience their first-person view of flight.
“We want to be that eagle in the sky,” Gennello said. “We just want to cruise through that gap in the trees.”