More than 75 pilots from across the United States were drawn to Albuquerque on July 22 to attend the area’s first local drone olympics.

New-Mexico-based drone pilot training company, DroneU, in association with multiple unmanned aviation organizations, hosted its first Fly-In at its Albuquerque headquarters last weekend.

The first of its kind, DroneU’s Fly-In is a veritable drone olympics. Featuring six individual drone competitions, the professionally designed “missions” gave participants a chance to explore the practical application of drone technology in a variety of circumstances.



DroneU offers a membership-based online platform, where interested and aspiring drone enthusiasts can take their craft to a more professional level through meetups and online classes. Advertising that thirty minutes of study each day can help students become professional drone pilots, DroneU boasts close to nearly 10 million minutes of instructional video watched in over 100 countries worldwide.

Competitors were challenged in courses that focused on real-world drone application, such as thermal search and rescue, subject tracking, fast water rescue, HVAC, real-estate videography and cinematography. The event also included an obstacle course.

"We're here today to showcase how to perform search and rescue with thermal imaging systems," said Paul Aitken, UNM graduate and co-founder of DroneU.

Some of the applications can mean the difference between life and death.

"In some missions, we look for barrels containing hazardous fluids, because in search and rescue it's important that rescue workers aren't sent unnecessarily into dangerous situations," Aitken said. "In other missions, we look for bodies."

Locating bodies using drones can be unfortunate, said Jon McBride, who works with Rocky Mountain Unmanned Systems, “but it helps the rescue workers to locate and retrieve victims," and it also provides unmanned aerial support in search and rescue and agriculture applications.

McBride also provides unmanned aerial support in search and rescue and agriculture applications.

"Here students are given the opportunity to try out the cameras, as well as to fly the big drones," Aitken said. "It lets students experience the different ways that we can see data."

Training is important when operating expensive equipment, especially when people's lives may be on the line.

"You don't have to be a hero when using this gear, but you do have to be well trained and certain of your work," McBride said. "We're giving people a chance to see how this technology works, and how it can help enhance what we see."

"DroneU is very helpful in bringing education to interested students," he said. "A lot of the technical aspects suggest that students should invest some money in better equipment and some education, and that's where the Fly-In can really help participants."

"It's an incredible inside look," Aitken said.

Collin O’Malley, a participant from Colorado who founded an aerial photography company called Stratos Images, said drones will continue to progress.

"I think we will see drone technology advance dramatically in the future," he said. "But you'll never be able to completely remove the human from the equation."

"Some jobs are better suited for airplanes and helicopters," McBride said. "But those vehicles can't get hard to reach places. Drones are especially valuable in those kinds of situations. We work with a tea company in Sri Lanka that is losing $700 million each month due to a lack of labor in the area," he said. "Drones have solved this problem for them by performing the same work that 10 laborers could perform."

"In 20 years, we'll tell the drones which windows to clean, and they'll do the job without our supervision," O’Malley said.

Ty Knight is a news reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at news@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @TajMikel.