From a distance at sunset it looks like it could be a set of batting cages or maybe a funky South Austin art installation -- something to do with fish netting, neon hoops and the buzzing of mechanical bees.
Upon closer inspection it’s hard to miss the point: drones. Drones. DRONES!
The pop-up shop at South Lamar Boulevard and Bluebonnet Lane in Austin, tucked behind the main street in the same lot as a Christmas tree shop, sells unmanned aerial vehicles, better known to holiday shoppers as drones. There are tiny toy drones, pricey photography drones, sleek compact drones, racing drones and even backpack-friendly foldables at prices ranging from under $50 to more than $3,000.
But the real attraction -- the one that’s drawing visitors eager to take flight -- is a 30-by-40-foot DroneDome. It’s an enclosed arena with netting on all sides (including the ground) where drones can race, do aerial battle and navigate several obstacle course-like hoops, noodles and tunnels, which light up at night to look like the inside of a pro gaming PC.
“There’s tremendous retail interest in drones between Black Friday and Christmas,” said Jeff Michalski, co-creator of the DroneDome and partner in Airogistic, the company behind it. “But people have a fear they need to get over. They wonder, ‘How does it fly? Can I run it?’”
To that end, DroneDome offers something that big box retailers selling drones typically don’t: an opportunity to test-fly drones for about $5 a session, the price of which can be applied toward a drone purchase. Outside the DroneDome arena is a table of assorted drones with names such as Typhoon H, Parrot Bebop or one of the most popular drones on the market, the Phantom from DJI.
DroneDome co-creator Mike Foley said curious parents with kids in tow have been arriving, and the pair are more than happy to educate shoppers on the differences between the myriad models of devices.
“Kids in particular eat this up,” Foley said. “They get some technical knowledge and hands-on time with drones. It’s going to be a skill that will be prevalent.”
To say that Michalski and Foley are drone enthusiasts would be an understatement. The self-described serial entrepreneurs, who have been in the tech industry since the 1990s, have been building their business around military applications, air monitoring and 3-D-printed copters. They’re interested in commercial and industrial drone applications; solar panel installers, for instance, can use drones to inspect a rooftop without actually breaking out a ladder.
They’ve also been working on docking stands for drones that can be deployed in emergency situations or at locations too dangerous for people. And then there’s the DroneDome concept, which began two years ago in Michalski’s back yard.
Back then, it was a 12-by-10-foot enclosure set up as a Christmas display so as not to alarm neighbors. Last year, it doubled in size at a ranch in Dripping Springs and then went public as a pop-up shop in Oak Hill.
This year, the DroneDome on South Lamar is running until Jan. 10 after having started on Thanksgiving weekend and is offering kid camps and long drone-flight days, from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., weather permitting.
The netted area allows for a safe space where a drone can hit an obstacle and crash to the earth with minimal damage, and as an enclosure, it’s not subject to FAA airspace regulations. It’s also set up for competitive drone flyers; there’s a leaderboard for top pilots as well as a wall of shame for those who crash most quickly.
But even for those who aren’t looking to fly, the space is good place to absorb an impressive amount of knowledge about the current state of drone technology. Michalski and Foley have been testing out drones so intensely that they can easily describe how photography drones handle in comparison to, say, compact drones, and which do-it-yourself drone kits are worth the trouble.
They can describe the way high-end drones are moving away from GoPro attachments in favor of their own photography technology, as well as the reason racing drones use lower-resolution cameras and need very fast Wi-Fi. For one thing, a ¼ second video lag delay to the pilot can mean a crash when they’re traveling 50 to 100 miles per hour. They’re happy to demonstrate the Yuneec Breeze 4K’s fun selfie drone mode in which the device flies up, tracks a user’s face and takes a snapshot, suitable for Instagram.
Or they’re just happy to make a kid’s face light up, as was the case on a recent chilly evening when Pierce Tongate, 12, and his father Perry Tongate returned to the DroneDome to take another crack at some flights. Pierce did an admirable job piloting a drone through the neon-bright hoops before almost, but not quite, sticking the platform landing.
Cue the cries of “Ohhhhh!” from everyone watching.
“We just stumbled upon it,” Perry Tongate said with a grin. “It’s exciting for sure.”