One of the foundational principles of Chesterfield Parks and Recreation’s master plan is to think outside the box and increase the diversity of recreational opportunities offered to county residents.
Tanner Rush had an idea that aligned perfectly with that objective.
Rush, director of a local chapter of drone racers, reached out to Parks and Recreation last year and inquired about the possibility of finding public outdoor space for people to safely fly their drones or other remote-controlled model aircraft.
County staff were enthusiastic about the project. After visiting two such facilities outside Chesterfield and considering potential sites across the county, they identified a 3-acre rectangular field on the property of the former Harrowgate Elementary School (now the Chester Early Childhood Learning Academy), 15501 Harrowgate Road.
Chesterfield County Public Schools administration was amenable to Parks and Recreation’s plan, under certain conditions, and the department formally dedicated Chesterfield’s first drone park last July.
“We keep our finger on the pulse of what people like to do and accommodate demand within existing park infrastructure if at all possible,” said Stuart Connock, assistant director of Parks and Recreation for planning and construction. “We’re always asking ‘What are we missing?’ There are niche opportunities that go beyond traditional parks and we try to find space for those things to happen.”
Drone technology is rapidly gaining prominence in American commerce, as Amazon and other companies explore ways to get products into the hands of their customers as quickly and inexpensively as possible. Realtors also commonly use drones to capture aerial images of listed properties, while drones have become a valuable tool for photographers and videographers in their coverage of news events.
Many others, like Rush, fly drones and other remote-controlled aircraft for fun. The Chesterfield resident laughed as he recalled purchasing a small, basic drone for $40 at a retail store and almost immediately losing it in a tree on its maiden flight. He was hooked, though; after doing more research, he bought a bigger, better model and got into drone racing.
Rush is currently head of the Chesterfield-based chapter of MultiGP, a drone racing league with more than 30,000 members and 750 chapters worldwide. Local chapters bring people together regularly to share knowledge, hone their skills and compete in qualifying events for MultiGP’s national and international championships. Drone pilots competing on the national level can earn corporate sponsorships or even be offered a paid position for racing.
Rush’s goal is to grow the sport in Chesterfield enough to host a qualifying event that brings drone pilots from across the world, further diversifying the county’s growing sports tourism industry.
“Drones are the future,” Rush said. “It’s already a major area, but it’s only going to get bigger and bigger.”
In response, schools across the country are now incorporating drone-building into their STEM programs and afterschool enrichment activities. Drone racing, meanwhile, is just one aspect of model aviation, a dynamic hobby that introduces people of all ages to concepts and skills such as electrical engineering, design theory and radio frequency programming.
“Having a space like [the Chester drone park], where schools can create programs for students to build and fly drones, will allow them to explore this technology,” Rush added.
The drone park also is preserving access to the skies for non-commercial uses. To maintain airspace safety as businesses increasingly deploy drone technology, the Federal Aviation Administration has proposed regulations that would require model aircraft built by hobbyists to be flown only in locally designated areas.
Chesterfield is now one of a select few localities in Virginia to have such a site.
The Chester drone park is only accessible for public recreational use outside school hours during the week, plus all day on weekends. It’s available on a first-come, first-served basis and not reserved solely for flying model aircraft; if a group of residents are already using the field for a sport or activity when a pilot arrives to fly his or her craft, the pilot has to wait until they’re done to send it up safely.
“We haven’t had any issues with sharing the space,” Connock said.
Should model aviation take off in Chesterfield to the point that demand exceeds the facility’s capacity, Connock noted Parks and Recreation is open to looking for similar space elsewhere in the county.
“Our job is to be responsive to the community we serve,” he added. “We’re starting with something and we’ll see where it goes from there.”