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Livestock, Snow Cones, And Star Wars: Inside The First-Ever National Drone Racing Championships

The world’s best FPV racers came together last week to vie for a top prize, $10K, and bragging rights. But does the new sport have a future?

The top competitors in a new sport were gathered in cow country.

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You may be familiar with these athletes. That’s because in recent months, many YouTube users have discovered a new addiction: underground FPV drone flying. Pilots wearing goggles that feed a first-person view from cameras mounted on custom-built performance quadcopters have taken those flying machines into forests and abandoned buildings and filmed some seriously jaw-dropping footage.

Stars like Charpu have tens of thousands of YouTube subscribers and can expect hundreds of thousands of views for their best videos, which show drones doing crazy twists, turns, twirls, and somersaults, all at speeds in excess of 100 miles an hour. One video, shot during a Star Wars-like race through a thick forest, got nearly 2 million views.

This Star Wars-like video of FPV drone racing in a forest has nearly 2 million views on YouTube.

“Our claim to fame comes from our…videos,” said Raphael Pirker, an FPV pilot known as Trappy. “We compare ourselves to graffiti artists. Not everywhere we go are we welcome.”

Now what was previously an underground obsession has come into the light, with a few enterprising souls trying to kick-start the brand-new sport of drone racing.

Already, there have been Aerial Gran Prix races in places like Los Angeles and Austria, as well as other events in Detroit, and elsewhere. Where better to ramp up the scale of the action than at the oh-so-wholesome annual state fair in Sacramento, California’s sun-scorched, middle-of-nowhere capital?

On Bonney Field, a soccer stadium located behind livestock, snow cones, and Ferris wheels, 120 of the world’s best FPV drone pilots, big shots like Charpu, Mr. Steele, CaliFrag, Pyro, RS2K, Final Pshaw, Zoe, and others, have come together to battle for the title of best pilot, a $10,000 top prize, and, of course, bragging rights. Sponsors for the event included GetFPV.com, a big supplier of FPV gear, ImmersionRC, the company that created the radio band system for transmitting video from the drones to the goggles, HobbyKing, a drones retailer, and Parrot, the maker of a line of consumer drones.

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Welcome to the Drone Nationals, the first-ever U.S. drone racing championships, an experiment aimed both at crowning a top dog and determining if this fledgling sport has a lucrative future.

Glitches

“All right, pilots,” a race official yelled, “give me a thumbs-up if you’ve got good video. Thumbs up, please, thumbs up.”

It’s essential that pilots have a working video feed from their drone (also called a quad). Transmitters attached to each drone broadcast live video to the pilots, judges, and those in the audience with a viewer, but things often go wrong.

“The biggest challenge now is video,” said race judge Edie Sellers. Radio frequency signals “can interfere, and if it glitches at exactly the wrong moment, it can cause you to crash. Cameras, cell phones, carnival rides, anything transmitting RF has the potential for interfering with your video.”

A simulation of the Drone Nationals race course.

Drone racing is an odd sport. In the forest, it’s a dash to finish a long, straight course complicated by the risk of smashing into trees. Here, each quad must successfully navigate a complex course resembling the shape of an ampersand five times, being sure to pass under each of several gates along the way. Succeed and pilots probably move into the finals. Fail, and they’re disqualified.

Thanks to the FPV goggles, which are their only navigational tool, the pilots sit inside a shaded timing tent alongside the racecourse. For the most part, their only movements during a race are endless subtle flicks of two small joysticks on handheld remote controls. Inside the tent, packed with pilots, judges, race officials, and others, it’s nearly impossible to tell who’s actually doing the racing.

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The U.S. National Drone Racing Championships.

Trappy

Winning is great, but for many of the pilots who’ve traveled to Sacramento from nine different countries, the real prize is meeting, in the flesh, some of the friends they’ve made online in recent months.

These guys–and a very small number of women–may pass unnoticed on almost every street in the world, but within this community, there are definitely the FPV-pilot equivalents of Derek Jeter and LeBron James.

“Let’s go, Trappy!”

“You’re my hero, Trappy!”

“Watch out, Trappy, the FAA’s here.”

All of this was directed at Pirker, a pilot who gained notoriety in drone-flying circles for his battle with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration last year. This January, Pirker settled with the FAA after the agency had singled him out as the first person it fined for illegally taking commercial photographs with his drone. Within the community, Trappy is a hero for standing up to the feds.

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“It’s kind of a weird feeling,” Pirker said of his celebrity status here, “because wherever I go in my normal life, nobody knows me.”

Even for a rock star like Trappy, though, coming to the Drone Nationals is much more about meeting his compatriots than strutting his own stuff.

“We all meet online,” he said, “but to finally get a chance to drink a beer with someone, it’s an honor.”

Don’t tell Scot Refsland, the Drone Nationals’ lead organizer and the guy who put up the prize money, but to folks like Trappy, the race itself is a sideshow.

“You’re talking to people 12 hours a day,” says Trappy, “and then you’re racing [just] three to five minutes.”

“It’s going to be huge”

One of the big unknowns at the Drone Nationals is whether this new pastime has the goods to compete with established X Games-type adventure sports like BMX racing, snowboarding, skateboarding, and so on.

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Looking around Bonney Field, it’s hard to say yes. It’s packed to the rafters in the pits, where pilots are hard at work getting their quads geared up to race, and in the timing tent. But up in the stands, which can hold 11,000 screaming fans, there’s maybe 70 or 80 people. Maybe.

You can blame the fact that it’s nearly 100 degrees in the scorching bleachers, or that this competition is taking place far from the tech hotbeds of San Francisco, New York, Seattle, or Austin. But to be frank, it’s also fair to say that, at least in this incarnation, drone racing is hard to envision as a spectator sport.

Judge Judging

For one thing, the drones are small. They’re usually less than a foot wide, and they travel so fast that it’s very hard to actually see them in action, even when you’re standing on the edge of the course. Also, the real draw is the FPV view, and you don’t have to be there in person for that. The Drone Nationals, for example, offered a live online feed that let fans watch the FPV action.

Still, there’s a whole lot of interest in figuring out how to turn drone racing into big business.

“I think it’s going to be huge,” said Randy Slavin, an aerial cinematographer and the lead organizer of the New York City Drone Film Festival. “It’s going to be fucking huge. It’s rare that you get a new sport that pops up….It’s super-high octane, an amazing mix of video games, racing, and robotics.”

The New York City Drone Film Festival

Slavin could well be right. Take the fact, for example, that ABC recently aired six episodes of BattleBots, the resurrected robot wars TV show. Like that competition, drone racing demands that its competitors be skilled in electrical engineering, radio frequencies, building, and more. It’s hardly for the weak-minded.

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“Once you take all those systems, and build them into a [drone] that’s going to go fast and crash, you can’t just be a moron,” Slavin said. “We have to capture the hearts and minds. Once people start to understand what’s going on, you’re going to get the crowds.”

The proof, Slavin added, is already there. Look at “heros” like Charpu, he said. “He has millions and millions of [YouTube] views. Mark Zuckerberg shares his videos.”

To Refsland, the guy most responsible for the Drone Nationals, it’s all about seeing if organized drone racing can scale, and if it’s stadium entertainment or online entertainment. The idea, he said, was to “create a little neutron bomb and set it off and see if it’s enough to spark the new sport.”

The Finals

Notwithstanding all the distractions, the Drone Nationals was a race. And run it they did.

The final round featured nine of the best pilots, in three heats. They were the ones with the fastest times in the earlier round. Then again, there weren’t many whose drones had survived the five-lap course earlier.

For those without a set of goggles, it was hard to tell the drones apart, and with them flying through the course at such high speeds, it was even harder to tell who was ahead.

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That explained the event’s P.A. announcer doing his best to rile up the crowd during the races, shouting about the “amazing action” going on. But inside the timing tent there was almost no action at all. The dozens of pilots, judges, and officials got way more animated, in fact, when the heats ended.

Then again, the constant crashes were pretty exciting. These quads are built to withstand crashes, but when they hit something, parts–rotors, transmitters, or other drone bits–go flying. In that, this has a lot in common with car racing.

Broken rotor

In the end, though, there was a winner. The victor, known as Final Glide AUS (for Australia), won the 10 grand top prize with a time of one minute, 44.44 seconds. Second place went to Brain Drain, just three seconds behind. Third and fourth went to CaliFrag and Eric the Great, respectively. Their times were at least half a minute behind. None of the other five finalists finished.

After the race, as Final Glide held court, Charpu approached and applauded his ability to race so well on such a hard course with such calm. “I don’t know how you do it,” Charpu said. “I watched your hands and they were so” still.

It’s simple, Final Glide said of FPV drone racing.

“It’s my space, and it’s my time,” he said. “It’s kind of like an out-of-body experience….Some people do drugs or drink [to relax]. I strap on my goggles, and play with all these nerdy toys.”

About the author

Daniel Terdiman is a San Francisco-based technology journalist with nearly 20 years of experience. A veteran of CNET and VentureBeat, Daniel has also written for Wired, The New York Times, Time, and many other publications.

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