Nearly 40 years ago, Doug Abernathy never dreamed he’d be flying drones in a hotel in his hometown, but there he was, inside the Bayfront Hilton, with three unmanned aircraft zipping around his head.

“And they’re off!” he said with a smile.

Abernathy graduated from St. Petersburg High School in 1978. He is serving as the chair for the 2018 Digital Avionics Systems Conference. The conference invited 200 of the brightest young minds in the field of aerospace and aviation to participate in lectures and meetings about flight.

The highlight of the weeklong event is the drone competition.

“When you compete you always try to win,” said Giovanni Miraglia, an Italian student studying at the University of Tulsa. “It’s very hard.”

Students were asked to fly an Unmanned Aerial System or "UAS", which is the aerospace industry’s preferred term for "drone", over three separate mock disaster scenes. Using a built-in camera, the students were to report the findings from their flights to judges. It’s the same type of scenarios real UAS pilots encounter on rescue missions.

“This is going to be a part of their future,” said Chris Watkins, a judge from Savannah, Ga., who works for Gulfstream Aeronautics. “Whether it’s a part where they just interact with, whether they are receiving packages from a drone… the drones are here to stay. They’re going to grow and they’re going to drive people crazy.”

The winner of the competition received an $800 drone. Over 30 nations are represented at this year’s event. Next year’s will be held in London, and the 2019 event is set for San Diego.

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