A palm-size contraption that moves and whirs like an angry hummingbird threads its way through the metal rafters of a downtown garage on a recent Saturday afternoon.
Then, guided remotely by an expert hand, it swoops behind a spectator who is watching the action through first-person-viewer goggles and grazes the tips of his hair.
It’s a drone, but one built for fun, not for warfare or snooping. It belongs to a duo of Houston entrepreneurs who have a dream of starting an indoor “drone park” in Waco that would give people of all abilities a taste of drone racing and flying.
Nick Madincea and Marjorie Ferrone want to offer short-term training and flying sessions on an hourly or yearly membership basis.
Participants would suit up with video goggles allowing them to see what the drone sees while traveling at speeds of 20 mph or more, and without having to deal with the raft of legal restrictions involved with outdoor drone use.
Madincea said he is not aware of any other indoor facilities that offer such an experience to the public. Customers would start by learning to fly the tiny drones by remote control but could advance to larger racing drones, which can travel the speed of a car.
“The coolest thing about this is that a drone is the most agile vehicle in the world,” Madincea said. “Before drones came along, if you wanted that feeling of being able to pilot or drive the most agile vehicle on earth, you had to cough up millions for a Formula One car. Now you can have that experience for less than $100.”
Ferrone said the partners are on the cusp of a new recreational technology that will be more satisfying than video games.
“I’ve played a lot of video games,” Ferrone said. “But when you’re playing a video game, you crash and get killed catastrophically, then it starts over. You can be isolated in a dark room playing for hours and hours. This is an entertainment experience where you’re dealing with real physical objects, and when you crash you have to spend hours fixing it. And it takes that gaming aspect and puts it in a social setting.”
The partners call themselves Drone Parks Worldwide, and they have the ambition to match, if not yet the financing. Madincea and Ferrone envision an international chain of drone parks, with Waco as the headquarters. What the partners don’t have yet is investors to cover the six-figure startup cost.
The duo is planning to set up a Kickstarter campaign to get the business off the ground. In the meantime, they have been traveling around Texas, presenting their idea at festivals and looking for backers. Madincea made a presentation at the August meeting of the 1 Million Cups entrepreneur gathering in downtown Waco, and he was struck by the welcome he got.
“After that event, I called Marjorie and said, ‘You’re not going to believe what happened,’ ” he said. “She said Nick, I think you’re going a little crazy. That’s small-town Texas.”
But Madincea persisted, and Ferrone came to share his enthusiasm for Waco’s business culture and tourism potential.
Ferrone drew a parallel with how the designer of the Brooklyn Bridge, John Roebling, supplied cables for the Waco Suspension Bridge before scaling up his designs.
“We want this to be the beginning of the Brooklyn Bridge,” she said.
The partners were also attracted to Waco’s real estate, which was more affordable than Houston’s.
They have zoned in on a large old garage at 924 Austin Ave. that originally housed the Waco Ford dealership in the 1920s and most recently served as a mechanic shop. They have been in discussions with Peter Ellis, the downtown developer who has a contract to buy the building from the Donald B. Lynn Family Real Estate Investments. The building is cavernous, with 24,000 square feet of space and 30-foot ceilings.
“We think there are some huge advantages to that facility,” Madincea said. “From the customer end, that building has so much character, and that deepens the experience. We don’t want to go to some place that was built 10 years ago. That facility is also very drone-friendly.”
Ellis said the drone park idea has potential to be the beginning of something big if it can get funded.
“I applaud them for doing something out of the box that’s family-friendly and wholesome,” he said.
Nathan Embry, a real estate agent who met the partners through the 1 Million Cups event, said they have an exciting idea that could be a draw for Waco.
“That drone stuff is starting to happen, and a lot of people are trying to get their license,” Embry said. “It seems to be a growing industry and to get in at the ground level makes a lot of sense.”
He agreed the Austin Avenue building is an ideal location, though he suggested the partners should look around at less expensive spaces.
Robert Denton, who is involved with the building’s seller, said the market rent for that building would likely be $1 per square foot even without significant improvements, for a yearly rent of $288,000.
Madincea said he has been working with the Small Business Development Center on a business plan, based on about 300 members paying $60 to $80 per month. He said the business would also welcome drop-in customers paying $60 for the first hour and $40 per hour after that.
He said he expects he’ll have long-term customers.
“It’s quite addictive,” he said.
Madincea, 20, said he got interested in drones a few years ago after years as a teenage pilot-in-training. Ferrone got up to speed on drones while attending the Naval Academy, and the two learned of their mutual interest at a school reunion.
Madincea said he initially had a difficult time figuring out how to shop for a drone and how to fly it legally.
Recreational drone sales have soared in the last few years, with some sources estimating more than 2 million machines change hands every year.
But the rules of drone use have been murky. The Federal Aviation Administration only last year permitted the widespread commercial use of drones, and then only with the use of trained pilots, at altitudes below 400 feet, and at least five miles from an airport.
The FAA has an exception for recreational users of drones at low altitudes but requires users to register in a national database and forbids flying them over people.
Madincea said he thinks people want to avoid those hassles and have a place where they can come learn how to fly safely in a controlled environment with their friends. He said the thrill is even greater than playing virtual reality games.
“Flying a drone is real. VR is computer-generated,” he said. “It’s the difference between playing ‘Grand Theft Auto’ and leading the police on a car chase. Not as dangerous, though.”