(TNS) -- LAS CRUCES - Better technology and lower prices are helping drones to make their way into the hands of the American public. And Spaceport America officials are hoping to tap into that burgeoning interest by hosting the facility's first drone summit, slated for Nov. 11-13 at the southeastern Sierra County spaceport.
The state Spaceport Authority is hoping to draw between 500 and 1,000 participants, exhibitors and spectators at the inaugural event, which features drone racing, a drone filmmaking contest, workshops and demo flights of small-scale, historical-replica planes.
Albuquerque resident Shaun Taylor — the world's top drone-racing pilot — is slated to host a workshop and will likely compete. Interest in the sport and in drones is "exploding," he said.
"It's starting to come to the masses now, instead of just hobbyists," Taylor said in an interview last Thursday, just days after winning the Drone Worlds championship in Hawaii.
The Spaceport America Drone Summit is a way to diversify spaceport activities and engage the public, said Rosa Banuelos, spaceport business development manager.
"It's a way to open our doors to those who wouldn't normally interact with a live commercial spaceport," she said. "We've put a really great program together."
Taylor, 36, an Albuquerque native, was introduced to drone racing in December 2014, near the time of the sport's inception. A friend kickstarted his interest.
"He was excited and bought one," he said. "I bought one. I kind of got hooked."
During races, about eight pilots at a time remotely fly their aircraft through a designated course. Speed, navigating obstacles and avoiding collisions are crucial to winning. Taylor said each race typically takes less than two minutes.
Taylor won his first competition about a year ago. Subsequent wins, including in France and Australia, led to his participation last weekend in the world championship. He retired from a job as a firefighter to pursue drone-racing as a career. He said he doesn't feel he has a natural gift for the sport.
"I put in a lot of time and hard work is what it comes down to for me," he said.
The Federal Aviation Administration estimates some 1.9 million small UAVs will be sold for hobbyist use in 2016 across the country. An additional 600,000 are forecast to be sold for professional use, for a total of 2.5 million devices. In five years, total sales are predicted to nearly triple with 7 million drones being sold in 2020.
Also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or Unmanned Aerial Systems, drones are being used worldwide for everything from wildlife conservation — delivering vaccine to prairie dogs, for instance — to military uses to humanitarian aid to the real estate industry. Criminals are inventing ways to smuggle drugs and contraband with drones.
In Las Cruces, ARCA Space Corp. is manufacturing a drone designed primarily for surveillance and reconnaissance. It is outfitted with an $11,000 camera capable of photo, video and thermal imaging. New Mexico State University has a role in drone testing and development with its Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Test Center, which has a 15,000 square-foot hangar at the Las Cruces International Airport.
Las Crucen Robert Paquette bought his drone about a year and a half ago and has used it to take his photography hobby to a new level, literally. He captures scenic shots of sunsets and the Mesilla Valley from a bird's eye view.
"There are over 800 drone owners in Doña Ana County, but most people aren't using them," he said. "A lot of people are afraid to fly them. They're easy to fly, but they're easy to crash."
While drones and related equipment can range in price from less than $100 to $10,000 or more, Paquette said a good device for someone looking to get into drone piloting, "if you're not looking to go overboard," will cost about $1,200.
Taylor, too, cited an expense in the same range — about $1,000 for the drone and associated gear — for someone wanting to start drone racing. The expense grows significantly, however, if a person plans to travel to competitions. He said he's fortunate enough to have sponsors covering those costs.
Bonnie Haggerty is CFO of the International Drone Racing Association, which hosts drone-racing events around the world and will co-host the race at Spaceport America. She said the drone industry, including racing, is on the cusp of sharp growth. There's not only potential in commerce but also in education. She said IDRA is involved with efforts to encourage drones as a way to spark interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — or STEM — careers among students.
"There's so many avenues that job-perspective-wise can come out of STEM," she said. "The younger people get it but have to understand what goes into the responsibility of having a drone."
Paquette advised anyone wanting to fly drones to become familiar with the regulations. There are two categories — hobbyist and professional — and the FAA released new rules in August pertaining to drones. The hobbyist category, to which he belongs, must adhere to some regulations, such as avoiding flying within a certain distance of airports and in national parks. But rules for drone pilots in the professional category are more extensive, he said.
In addition, Paquette recommended studying other drone owners' failures. A number of YouTube videos show people having crashed their drones and explaining what went wrong.
"There's so much to learn," he said.
The FAA has launched a "Know Before You Fly" campaign to educate the public about both recreational and business drone rules, according to http://knowbeforeyoufly.org. There's also an app, B4UFLY.
At the Spaceport America Drone Summit, workshop presenters will review the standards for drone use, establishing a drone-based business and what's in store for the industry's future, according to the schedule.
There's a range of registration fees, depending on whether a person wants to attend only segments of the summit or wants access to it entirely, spaceport officials said. People wanting to attend the workshops or watch the racing can register online before Nov. 11 or at the door, though there is an extra charge in that case, Banuelos said. The deadline to register for the drone-racing competition is Nov. 9. The registration website is http://spaceportamericadronesummit.com/.
Asked whether the spaceport authority will make money hosting the event, Banuelos said that's the plan. But given that this is the first summit, she said "we just want to make it a successful event and grow every year."
Paquette, who's planning to attend the Spaceport America Drone Summit, said his drone gives him a unique look at the world around him.
"It's a whole different view, a whole different perspective," he said.
©2016 the Las Cruces Sun-News (Las Cruces, N.M.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.