If he was on the fence before, Global Air Media co-founder Eno Umoh now has reason to be confident in the public’s interest in his company’s plans to start a drone racing league in Baltimore.
About 500 people of all ages congregated outside of Open Works in Greenmount West earlier this month to watch a number of professionals race their drones through a custom-made course for the Baltimore Drone Prix – a lighthearted competition held April 1 to both kick off and gauge interest in the area’s first-ever drone racing league.
“We were expecting between 200 and 250 would come, so that was really exciting to see,” said Umoh, adding that Mayor Catherine Pugh’s visit was an especially nice surprise.
Drone racing has become increasingly popular around the world over the last year – to the point where ESPN agreed to broadcast the Drone Racing League season.
Cleared for takeoff
Global Air Media, Umoh’s Baltimore-based aerial cinematography and mapping company, plans to launch the Baltimore Drone Racing League with Open Works' help in the coming months. Participants will spend six-to-eight weeks learning how to build and race their own drones using science, technology, engineering and math skills.
Starting in May, Global Air Media will host a series of workshops at Open Works’ 34,000-square-foot facility, where participants will have access to 3-D printers, soldering irons, a digital fabrication shop and a computer lab, among other resources they’ll need to build and tinker with their drones. The full summer league is scheduled to launch in June.
While the league is open to all ages, Umoh said it’s primarily geared toward the region's youth. The goal is to get kids excited about STEM by way of drone. Global Air Media has for the last year been offering a series of drone building workshops at schools in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and has seen the initiative create a noticeable difference in students’ enthusiasm for STEM.
“The purpose is really to bring STEM awareness to drone use, in general,” Umoh said. “And once you know how to fix different machines and solder, those are just life skills that you can take anywhere.”
Bryant Brown, a program manager with After-School All-Stars in D.C., said Global Air Media has partnered with his chapter to provide drone engineering workshops at Two Rivers Public Charter School. He’s seen the same enthusiasm take over his program’s middle school students.
“At one point, there was a battery they needed to use to make the drone go higher, faster. Even though the kids knew what battery was going to work, they kept trying different stuff to see what the results would be,” Brown said. “Younger kids are fascinated by having control of what they want to make.”
The Federal Aviation Administration’s recent effort to broadly authorize commercial drone use in the U.S. is expected to generate $82 billion for the U.S. economy by 2025. A report released last year by Pricewaterhouse Coopers projected the global market for drones would reach $127 billion in the near future.
Well aware of the industry’s promise, Umoh aims to set Baltimore’s youth up for success by getting them started early.
“We always say that we are training kids for jobs that haven’t been created yet,” Umoh said.
For this reason, Open Works Executive Director Will Holman said participants will spend some time in May learning about how to be a safe pilot under the FAA’s new rules for commercial drone users.
“We aren’t training them to be FAA-certified pilots. The point is to expose them to this growing industry and help them understand how it’s a viable career path,” Holman said.
Holman said Global Air Media’s program aligns well with Open Works’ goal of arming the area’s makers with the tools, technology and resources they need to contribute to the local economy in an innovative and valuable way. It’s largely why the partnership formed in the first place.
“With our powers combined, it’s an amazing way to bring some really exciting, cutting-edge stuff right to the heart of Baltimore,” Holman said.
Visit Baltimore President and CEO Al Hutchinson said he's eager to watch the league power forward.
“We’re excited to see how this racing league takes off and have high hopes that it will attract both visitors and future business for the city,” he said in an email to Crain's Baltimore.
Umoh is still hashing out the cost to participate in the league, but said it would cover the uniform and materials used to create the drones. He also plans to offer scholarships and assistance for those who are unable to afford it.
Global Air Media will also host a series of events for participants to fly their drones, just for the fun of it. There will also be an day where participants will be divided into different heats based on skill level, Umoh said. He hopes to have another big event similar to the Baltimore Drone Prix again this summer – only this time, the kids will race.
The drone racing will be “First Person View,” or FPV, in which racers wear goggles showing a real-time video from a camera mounted on the drone.