Collegiate Drone Racing Association 2018 National Championship

Written by Matt Ruddick
The sport of the present
As seen in the Fall 2018 issue of
Park Pilot.

>> When it comes to college sports and their respective championships, giant events with giant audiences immediately come to mind. Things such as the NCAA Final Four, FBS College Football Championship, and others garner huge excitement from fans and athletes alike. In 2017, a small group of drone racing enthusiasts from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, held its first Collegiate Drone Racing Championship, with the hope that it might someday grow to be as popular as the mainstream college sports that most of us are familiar with.

In April 2018, the second Collegiate Drone Racing National Championship race was held in West Lafayette. In all, 67 pilots from 20 colleges located across the country qualified for the race, including teams from The University of Alabama, Virginia Tech, Oregon State University, and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Owen Crook, president of the Purdue Drone Club ( and race director of the championship event, attributed the great support from college administration to the focus on STEM principles. Owen said, “Colleges, especially a lot of the engineering schools, love to support things like this because they get to see their students succeed.”

Pilots prepare their quads on the starting blocks.

In fact, many of these schools offered more than just moral support to their teams. Owen shared that some teams had their travel and food expenses paid for by their universities because it was seen as a way to encourage students to find new and exciting ways to explore STEM-related projects.

With Purdue University serving as the host venue for the championship race, Owen and the Purdue Drone Club haven’t found any lack of financial support from the university. They approached different departments to raise money to help put on the event, and nearly always received more money than they requested, making up $25,000 of the $30,000 cost of the event. They’ve even made a fan out of former Indiana governor and current Purdue University President Mitch Daniels, who offered his full support to the Purdue Drone Club after seeing videos of the club’s first race in 2017.

Safety was an important factor when planning the race, and thanks to the strong aeronautical program at the university, the pieces were already in place to make sure that all points were covered. Owen explained, “When we were planning the event, we met with many different safety groups and organizations to make sure we provided a safe environment during the event.”

In the rare times when they received pushback, the club invited those people out to the field to show them exactly what drone racing was all about. He said, “We would invite them out, and let them put the goggles on, and that almost always changed their mind about it. They instantly saw the value of what we were trying to do.”

This year, a fallback plan would have to be executed thanks to unpredictable Indiana weather. Forecasts for race day called for heavy wind and rain to descend upon Purdue University, so two days before the event, it was decided to move the race indoors to Lambert Fieldhouse, which is used by the Purdue track and field teams. Unfortunately, because of scheduling conflicts, Owen and his team were unable to begin setting up any kind of track inside the venue until 7 p.m. the night before racing was to begin.

Pilots worked between heats to repair damage and to be ready for their next race.

And because of the late venue change, none of the track and field equipment could be removed, so the organizers were forced to create a new track designed around obstacles such as pole vault mats and nets that stretched from floor to ceiling. In the end, they came up with a track that was both quick and technical. It offered some great challenges, but also didn’t feel daunting.

Many of the pilots I spoke with claimed that this track was the most fun course they’ve flown in competition. Owen even hinted that this might not be the last time Lambert Fieldhouse hosts the race, thanks to how much everyone enjoyed the atmosphere and competition.

Of course, competition was the main focus of the day in West Lafayette. With heat races kicking off at 10 a.m. and lasting until nearly 4:30 p.m., flightline and safety director Josh Ehlert kept things running smoothly by making sure pilots were in their places at the right time so that delays wouldn’t keep them from completing the event.

On this particular day, the track had to be torn down and the venue emptied by a set time that evening, so it was even more important for things to run on time. Thanks to the hard work from the event organizers and the quick racing by talented pilots, the race ran to completion.

Embry-Riddle teammates congratulate Michael Saalwaechter on his win.

Taking the top spot of the day was Michael “SparkyMJ” Saalwaechter from Embry-Riddle’s Daytona Beach campus. However, he wasn’t the only Embry-Riddle student to make the podium. The top three spots were all from the same team. Jay “FlyingJ” Patel and top qualifier Patrick “Enginair” White rounded out the top three finishers, giving Embry-Riddle the overall team win as well.

Patric “FlyingPolak” Hruswicki, the fourth member of the winning team, took home a 12th-place finish. Patric, who began flying 3D fixed-wing airplanes before transitioning to FPV quad racing, explained that going to school in Florida offered his team an advantage “… because we get to practice year-round. Winter flying is a breeze back home.”

The big takeaway from this event was seeing how much cooperation there was between the competitors. Throughout the day, in the heat of the competition, nothing was off limits in how these pilots were willing to help each other finish the race. “We want to race the person, not what they can bring to the starting line,” Jay said of the sportsmanship displayed throughout the day.

The top three finishers from Embry-Riddle’s Daytona Beach campus pose for photos after the race.

During the final race, one competitor even loaned an entire quadcopter and radio to another pilot when his video transmitter stopped working on the starting blocks. With a new quadcopter and rates that he had no time to practice with, everyone knew he would likely fail to complete a lap and risk damaging the quadcopter. Yet, acts of sportsmanship such as this were prevalent.

A member of the team from Embry-Riddle might have said it best by stating, “We have our own quad community that, regardless of who they are, I could see anyone easily helping someone out with parts and equipment because we’re all here to just have fun and race.”

Although the Collegiate Drone Racing Championship wasn’t televised across the country like other college sports events are, it certainly didn’t lack the excitement, drama, and preparation those events are known for. With two successful national championship events under its belt, the Purdue Drone Club has proven that collegiate-level drone racing isn’t just a sport of the future; it’s a sport of the present.

-Matt Ruddick

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