Economic potential seen in drone ‘flying circus’

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Print this page by Tim Thornton
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Covington is hosting Stone Blue Airlines’ drone festival in May.

Stone Blue Airlines’ Flying Circus FPV Festival started four years ago in Wise.  The Southwest Virginia town is four hours away by car from Stone Blue’s Lynchburg headquarters, but that didn’t deter Stone Blue’s owner, Jeremiah Guelzo.

He says a group of people in Wise were interested in his aircraft, and the location was perfect for the event. “When you’ve got somebody that’s interested and wants you to be there, I want to go down there,” he says.

The next festival will be May 18-21 in Covington, which sees big potential for Guelzo’s small aircraft.

Despite its name, Stone Blue isn’t an airline. The company builds and sells all sorts of drones and other remote-controlled aircraft.

Most of these aircraft differ from other remote-control planes in one very important way. They have onboard video systems and transmitters.

Pilots on the ground wear goggles showing them what the plane-mounted cameras see just as if they were on board.

“This is remote-control aircraft with a video system,” Guelzo says. “That’s all it is.”

But that makes all the difference. These aircraft don’t have to always be visible to the pilots, so they can race in an old iron mine illuminated with colorful LEDs, as they did at the Flying Circus last year in Covington, or in an old school building, as they plan to do this year.

“It’s the NASCAR of the future, is what they say,” Marla Akridge says. “After I’ve seen it and watched it on TV and experienced it, I think they’re right.”

Akridge is executive director of the Alleghany Highlands Economic Development Corp. She got involved with drones when Steve Bennett, a member of the Alleghany County Board of Supervisors, bought one from Guelzo.

Last spring, 120 pilots came to the Flying Circus in Covington, traveling from as far away as Florida, California and Canada.

The event was “kind of dipping our toes into the water,” Akridge says. The biggest economic impact from the event was pilots staying at motels and eating at local restaurants. This year, Akridge anticipates a lot of spectators.

The Flying Circus isn’t the end of Covington’s plans for drones. Akridge says the goal is for the area to attract people interested in learning how to fly drones — not just for pleasure, but also for photography, forest management and other uses.

During last year’s event, Akridge worried that some people might object to the traffic or the sound of drones buzzing overhead. While retrieving festival signs, she saw an older man walking toward her and braced for a complaint.

“He was so excited,” Akridge remembers. “He said, ‘When are they coming back?’”

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