Drone dreams come true

UND’s UAS/RC Club sees sky as the limit as UND hosts drone racing championship this weekend

Jordan Krueger will lead the University’s drone racing team in this weekend’s championship event. Krueger has worked tirelessly the past three years to build up the UAS/RC Club and bring drone racing to campus. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

In less than a week, UND is hosting the 2019 Collegiate Drone Racing Association’s National Championship (CDRC).

Schools from around the nation will converge on UND’s campus, at the High Performance Center, to determine the best of the best in collegiate first-person-view (FPV) racing.

Jordan Krueger, a senior and president of the UND UAS/RC Club, says it’s a long-held dream coming to fruition.

Flying radio-controlled aircraft since the age of 10, Krueger is now one of the fastest FPV racers in the country – having qualified and competed in the 2018 MultiGP Drone Racing Championship in Las Vegas.

For the uninitiated, MultiGP represents the major leagues of drone racing worldwide with over 30,000 registered pilots.

Krueger hadn’t held a racing quadcopter in his hands until he arrived at UND. Even then, he arrived to find a student organization without any clear leadership or regular activity. The UAS/RC Club lost its club status the previous year, as once-active students graduated and left UND.

“The club has been around for almost 10 years,” Krueger described. “After they failed to re-register, nothing was happening for a year. Halfway through that, some buddies and I got together and asked, ‘Why is this just sitting around? We’re a UAS school with a fully accredited four-year degree – we need people flying and building.’”

Starting small

Eric DeGray came to UND with two degrees and his eyes set on a third in UAS operations. He is a longtime drone and RC enthusiast who enjoys constructing aircraft. Currently, he works as an operations manager with the Northern Plains UAS Test Site.

He was also confused by the lack of activity among then-current students presumably at the University to pursue careers in UAS.

“This is the most prestigious UAS school in the country but half of the students didn’t know how to build one, what it’s composed of and what makes it work,” he said. “We study larger platforms, typically militarized, but industry is moving to small stuff. That’s where there are commercial applications.”

There was a need, DeGray felt, to get students building and working with smaller platforms. Learning about the flight controllers and systems was important because they are more or less miniaturized versions of larger, more redundant platforms.

Race-capable quadcopters were a newer development in the RC scene, and their price of entry was relatively affordable compared to most hobby aircraft. DeGray taught Krueger how to build one.

“At the first meeting in 2015, was the first time I held what’s called a ‘tiny whoop,’” Krueger recalled, referencing the smallest version of FPV quadcopters. “It had a camera on it and the person flying it wore goggles showing the live feed. I was immediately hooked after flying it myself.”

“He’s way faster than me now,” DeGray laughed. “I’ll never be on his level – I first built one before coming to UND, but it wasn’t anything like what’s available. Everything is smaller and more powerful now.”

UND’s drone racing team from left to right: Russell Marotzke, Julian Burrill, Jack Engstrom, Jordan Krueger, Sean Flynn and David Johnson. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

On-the-scene experts

Three years since that fateful meeting, the club has come a long way.

“We had some tools and aircraft laying around,” Krueger said. “But everything was in shambles. We worked our way from five members, zero dollars in the club account and two aircraft that weren’t able to fly, to now 25 solid members, $4,000 in the club account and a fleet of 15 aircraft.”

He says with this latest development, UND hosting the CDRC, the club is starting to make a name for itself.

As subject matter experts, club members will be around the event all weekend to assist in any way they can. On the flight line, where pilots prepare for races and fly, they’ll be checking equipment and ensuring a safe, fair race.

“We’ll be the go-to for everyone over the weekend,” Krueger said of his team.

Of course, UND students will also be on the flight line. Including Krueger, six competitors will don the green and white for what is hopefully a home-field advantage. The competition’s format takes the team’s three fastest racers in qualifying rounds.

Last year, UND’s squad took home a fifth place overall finish out of 27 teams.

Racers representing the University in this year’s competition are: Julian Burrill, Sean Flynn, Russell Marotzke, Jack Engstrom, David Johnson and Krueger.

Significant moment

The fact Krueger’s dream is coming true—in his last year at UND—drives him to put in as much work as he can to make it a significant moment in both UND and UAS history.

It’s something he’s worked to impart on the rest of the UAS/RC Club, and younger members have been inspired by his leadership.

“If anyone needs help, he’ll be the first one to drop something and help others,” sophomore Logan Jones, club vice president, said. “That shows more than great leadership, it’s great friendship and commitment to his teammates and friends. I couldn’t ask for someone better to get this club started up, again. It’s opened a pathway for the rest of us.”

“I don’t think we could have done it nearly as well as he did,” sophomore Julian “JJ” Burrill concurred. The two spoke of Krueger’s undying work ethic and ability to juggle not only his education and career path, but the overall health of the club.

Once he eventually departs, Jones and Burrill hope to keep building to a point of sustainability. The CDRC presents an enormous opportunity to attract more attention, and the UAS industry is too healthy to have a dormant club going into the coming decade.

“We don’t want a repeat of what’s happened to this group in the past,” Jones told UND Today. “The hobby is too big, the industry is too big and the potential of everything we do now and can do in the future is too great to lose.”