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The New Way to Promote Your Town: Drone Racing

A rural Maryland county hopes drone racing will help boost the local economy

May 4, 2017

Leonardtown, Maryland might not seem like a hotbed of drone racing. After all, it is the only incorporated town in all of St. Mary’s County and is best known as the home of the U.S. National Oyster Festival shucking competition.

“It’s off the radar for most people, down in the southern end of Maryland,” says Chris Kaselemis, director of the department of economic development for St. Mary's County. “It’s not the kind of place you even pass through on your way somewhere else; you have to decide to go there.”

However, this small town is turning to drone racing this August in hopes that it will help boost its economy. The Maryland State Championship FPV Drone Race and Show will include two days of racing, demonstrations, and space for local UAS companies to promote their services and recruit talent at the St. Mary’s County Fair.

“When a county government approaches you and asks if you want to put on an event to show people all of the positive aspects of drones, the only answer is yes,” says Michael Geraghty, CEO and co-founder of Rugged Sky Media, an organizer of the event.

The drone race will also highlight the growing autonomous and unmanned industry in St Mary’s County. It may come as a surprise to some that the county claims over a dozen UAS firms, including event sponsor Ausley Associates, and companies like Northrup Grumman and Synergy Areospace. The area is also the home to the U.S. Navy’s UAS test facility at Webster and the University of Maryland’s UAS test site. In addition, the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center is opening an $82 million facility devoted primarily to unmanned and autonomous systems.

Drone racing events aren’t new to Maryland. A number of drone races have been hosted in Baltimore, which Geraghty says generated positive attention that helped spread the concept to less urban environments, like Leonardtown. For Leonardtown’s economic development team, the dream is that the race will help attract young people to the area who will see what the town has to offer in terms of opportunity and quality of life.

“There are great tech jobs here and a good quality of life, but we have to show people that is the case,” says Kaselemis. “I hope they come here for the race and have fun, but also see all of the high-tech companies participating in the event.

Here's an FPV video from the Baltimore Grand Prix 2017.
Surprise: St. Mary's County is actually pretty popping when it comes to drone tech. It's home to the Navy’s UAS test facility and the University of Maryland’s UAS test site.
University of Maryland
More Than a Show

For Geraghty, the partnership is more than a promotional vehicle or economic development tool. It is propaganda ― in a good way. He became an activist on behalf of drones in 2013 when Senator Rand Paul launched a 12-hour filibuster focused on the danger of drone strikes to U.S. citizens on American soil.

“When that happened, Fox, CNN, and all of the media lit up with talk about the danger of drones in America,” he says. “We formed our company with the idea that drones are a positive influence in modern life. We want to spread that message, but it hinges on people having an open mind.”

Drone racers hope this partnership will be good public relations for the drone industry as it takes root in the area. The Department of Economic Development for St. Mary's County has a handful of sponsors already and hopes to have all of the major drone businesses in the area represented at the August event.

“When we work with the community and people see drones flying overhead and have a positive experience, it creates a sense of goodwill that will be good for our industry,” says Geraghty. “Plus, it’s a lot of fun.” 

Kaselemis is not aware of other economic development organizations sponsoring drone racing events, but believes it is a model that could work for other communities. He says they are already planning to make the Maryland State Championship FPV Drone Race and Show into an annual event.

“The drone race is the perfect event to attract young professionals to the area,” he says. “I imagine it will make sense for other places, too.”
Featured image: Balance Productions LLC