Drone Racers Feel the Need for Speed

The Liberty Cup to be held Wednesday at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City is billed as “the first-ever drone race set against the NYC skyline.”

My romantic vision of the event—which was canceled over the weekend due to weather, except for some preliminary races—was that competitors’ aerial drones would race over to Manhattan, circle One World Trade Center twice, buzz the SeaGlass Carousel in the Battery, and see who made it back to the Garden State first.


“It’s not legal,” explained Steve Zoumas, one of the racers, referring to crossing the Hudson. “It’s not responsible. You probably wouldn’t get it back.”

That sounded extremely mature to me. But I’d come to the Liberty Science Center a few days before the race not to get my maturity passport stamped but to romp in the fragrant wildflower fields of childhood.

Drones seemed to me the fulfillment of a ’50s or ’60s childhood fantasy—your personal flying machine. If one required proof that, at least in some ways, civilization is heading in the right direction, look no further than the fact that a previous generation’s kites have been replaced by somersaulting drones.

A drone with the Jersey City and Manhattan skylines in the background.sENLARGE
A drone with the Jersey City and Manhattan skylines in the background.s PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“We made paper airplanes and thought that was damn cool,” observed Paul Hoffman, president and CEO of the Liberty Science Center. “Look how primitive that was compared to a mini flying machine that you can see what it sees.”

By the way, how high can these things fly?

Mr. Zoumas and Randy Scott Slavin, the founder of the NYC Drone Film Festival and director of the Liberty Cup drone race, didn’t seem enthralled by my question.

“We want to fly 80 miles per hour 2 feet from the ground,” Mr. Zoumas said of his racing drones. “I don’t care about the elevation.”

Mr. Slavin added, “The desire to fly high dissipates quickly. Once you’re up there everything looks the same.”

Rather than fly around the tri-state area, the remote-controlled drones would tackle an obstacle course filled with things like hoops they have to negotiate. The racers wear goggles that connect to a camera on the device that gives them a drone’s-eye view of the course.

I also wondered what the NYC Drone Film Festival was about? While interest in reaching great heights might dissipate quickly, boredom watching movies starring drones might set in even faster.

Then again I’ve never been able to understand that percentage of the population that can watch ski porn all day long—those films where daredevils risk death on Denali, or wherever, in search of fresh powder.

“Are there actors?” I asked Mr. Slavin.

“Sometimes,” he answered, directing me to “Superman With a GoPro,” Best in Show winner at the 2015 NYC Drone Film Festival, and a pretty cool movie.

My greatest concern regarding drones involves issues of privacy. Namely my own. I can foresee the day when there are drones zipping over my house all day long, engaged in activities ranging from delivering diapers to spying through my windows.

Mr. Zoumas pointed out a number on the side of one of the drones that would be competing for the Liberty Cup. It was its FAA registration number, the equivalent of a car license plate. “It’s a way to prevent people from doing stupid things,” he explained.

I found that encouraging, but not totally.

I was also introduced toAndy Shen, described by Mr. Slavin as “the Enzo Ferrari of drone design.”

Mr. Shen showed me some of his sleek aircraft while explaining that there are two schools of thought regarding drone design. “One is to make it as light as possible for acceleration and maneuverability.”

I’m not sure we ever got to the second one.

Though, come to think of it, the second school might have been embodied by the drone Mr. Shen produced when I lobbied anybody who would listen to let me fly one.

The machine was roughly the same concept as those baby walkers with big bumpers. The propellers were encased in plastic so you wouldn’t lose an eye if you mistakenly flew it into your face.


Have something to say about an article in Greater New York? Email us, along with your contact information, atgnyltrs@wsj.com. Letters will be edited for brevity and clarity. Please include your city and state.

As I almost did.

“If you panic,” Mr. Shen instructed me, “let go of the stick,” on the control board.

I quickly found occasion to follow his advice because, on my maiden voyage, I lost control of the flying machine and it vanished behind some bushes.

Mr. Shen rushed to recover it.

“It’s still alive,” he reported with relief to his colleagues. “It’s got a lot of grass stains.”