It’s 9 a.m. on a late-June Saturday deep in North Hills and temperatures are already somewhere between “fuck this” and “I can’t even.”
Lining one side of a high school track that encircles a football field, there are pop-up canopies covering hodgepodges of gears and electronic gadgets. Out on the Astroturf, there’s a heat shimmer that gives the surface an ethereal glow, and above it all is the unmistakable weed-whacker buzz of drones. This is a local qualifier for the Drone Nationals and there’s an oddly placid air of camaraderie.
I’ve come here under the impression that this would be something different. The words “drone” and “race” bring to mind a slew of apocalyptic images: flying robots, kill lists, death sports and floating terminators that will one day bring an end to us all. OK, and occasionally, I think of the annoying dudes taking GoPro footage of parks, company picnics, neighbors' bathrooms and the like with pizza box–sized helicopters. I don’t think of these tiny camera-mounted FPV (First Person View) drones being piloted through a series of hoops. I don’t think of people tinkering and sharing knowledge. This is the sport of the future and it’s really chummy — too chummy, even.
As the groups of dudes (yes, it's 99.99 percent dudes right now, it seems) are eyeballing the track, strategizing turns and analyzing pylons and gates large and small, the sound of buzzing is interrupted by an unholy mechanical thud. It’s the kind of thud an expensive toy makes when a toddler tosses it off a balcony. Folks within earshot cringe and let out a collective, “Ooooh, bummer.” Fortunately, crashes are part of the process and these drones are designed to take toddler-level punishment.
Caleb Boulio, a tatted-up 25-year-old undergrad at Coleman University in San Diego, assures me through puffs of his vape contraption that the test crash isn’t as bad as it sounds. “They’re pretty sturdy carbon fiber, but,” he says, “you’ve got to have all of your spare parts around.”
Boulio and his robotics classmate Brad Risse are frantically checking channels and fine-tuning their rig with flux and a soldering iron in the shade of a nearby shed.
“We don’t play collegiate sports or anything, so this is the only opportunity in our lifetime where we’d get to be on ESPN,” Risse explains.
Risse is referring to the fact that just this year, the International Drone Racing Association (IDRA) partnered with ESPN to bring drone racing to the masses on live TV — starting with the Drone Nationals in New York in August. Since this event is sanctioned by IDRA, the top five racers from this event will qualify for the Nationals and will get to taste at least 15 minutes of televised sports glory. Maybe one day they’ll be among the pantheon of other sporting heroes. Until then, they’re just working out the kinks.
FPV drone racing is more than just NASCAR for nerds. It’s … OK, it’s NASCAR for nerds, even if that oversimplifies it. Thanks to advances in electronics that have allowed for the production of cheap cameras, super-lightweight flight controllers and small accelerometers, there has been a proliferation of inexpensive consumer quadcopters — y’know, four-rotor helicopters. Folks taking aerial photography and bugging the shit out of people at parks have dominated the home-drone narrative until now. When cheaper quadcopters got even smaller, shrinking to the size of a VHS tape or so, of course people wanted to race them. And now, it’s as if radio-controlled cars and Nintendo’s F-Zero had a baby. And the operators all wear futuristic goggles to get that first-person view while they race.
In less than a year, Southern California has already become a kind of hub for this fledgling sport, Orange and L.A. counties in particular. However, while cities like L.A. have a prolific DIY-maker culture and a long list of wide-open spaces that provide ideal conditions for FPV racing to soar, ham-fisted regulations on flying things haven't yet been fine-tuned to allow for hobbyists and racers to do their thing.
Sean Krell, co-founder of the year-old LAFPV and one of the race’s organizers, does his best to work within the confines of those blunt regulations. “We really need to get a permanent home, and that’s what I’m trying to do right now. Find us a park or something where we can do this more. That’s why this event was held at a private location, because it’s just so difficult to get permits for this sort of thing in L.A. right now,” he says. But, naturally, there are some dummies out there who are making it difficult, a distinction Krell and LAFPV work hard to make.
“There’s still this gray area for hobbyists who just want to fly. We’re trying to separate ourselves from people who fly store-bought drones … who fly them way high in the air and don’t really follow the rules,” Krell says.
I ask him if these are the people you hear about complicating firefighting efforts or getting in flight paths. “Yeah, that’s not us, we don’t ever fly higher than 50 feet off the ground, if that. We take all of the necessary safety precautions and make sure all of the pilots follow the rules.”
Since drone racing is basically in its infancy, it’s not without its fits and starts. There is no typical drone race and there's no real blueprint for how each race is supposed to run. Which can be both fun and frustrating. Pete Mauro of Pasadena started Drone Squad, a smartphone app he hopes will work out a lot of those kinks.
“I saw this opportunity last year where it was just really hard to get people together to compete,” Mauro says. “It’s technically hard to set up. Making sure everyone is on the correct frequency. A lot of times people would get together and be taking each other out of the sky because they would be on conflicting frequencies. There were just a lot of logistical problems that were preventing competition, and that’s where my company started.”
Drone Squad on the iPhone, with its clean and easy display, seems indispensable for following along the race heats. Mauro adds, “In my mind, it should be just as easy as plugging into an Xbox, and that’s what we hope to achieve.” He’s definitely getting there.
Mauro isn’t the only SoCal entrepreneur getting in on the ground level of the sport of the future. Cornell Herg, 22, co-founded the Irvine-based company Droneflux last year, which he hopes will be like the Amazon of drone parts. Flanked by his Droneflux cohorts, a warren of parts and a dogeared Bible, Herg’s a veritable encyclopedia of drone knowledge. He walks me through the process of parts to finished product, which is basically as difficult as learning to solder a few wires. Soon enough, it may not even be that hard. He claims that you need an initial investment of only about $800 to get started, and it doesn’t get more expensive beyond that. His enthusiasm is captivating and it mirrors a lot of other stories I hear today: He got into drones about a year ago, and now he’s racing to contend for a national competition. “It seems like this weird underground sport no one’s heard of, but once you see it, you’re hooked. Everyone has a blast here.”
With all of the nerdiness on display, and even if it doesn’t feel overblown or obnoxious, there’s still a slight air of testosteroney, e-sports culture, with a few sleeveless, Monster-chugging bros peacocking about. Either way, the first few heats of a drone race don’t look all that exciting from the sidelines. A typical crash involves a flipped drone and some sheepish shuffling on the cushioned turf — but nothing too awe-inspiring. But there’s at least one spectacular day-ending crash, when someone’s rig overshoots the course and fires a swap meet of parts into the parking lot, dinging a minivan in the process. A crowd gathers at the fence line to watch as the embarrassed pilot-operator hunts for salvageable pieces while scoping damage on the minivan.
After enough races I start to get a sense of how things go and I really start to see the marked differences between weekend pilots and professionals such as Vince Murdzak, a 22-year-old from Ventura. Murdzak’s steady flying is pretty glorious to watch. He takes crisp, smooth turns at high speeds — in contrast to the erratic upstarts’ sloppy zigzags. He even manages to shoot through a tunnel of six hoops that have made other racers pretty uneasy. That precision came with an insane amount of practice, though. He told me, “Lately, I’ve been getting off of work at 5 and just practicing until the sun goes down. Basically every day. I got these really small soccer goals from Big 5 and took out the nets. I’ve been practicing on those, and they make these gates look huge by comparison.”
In one sense, drone racing’s biggest problem right now has to do with spectating. The bulk of the drones’ video feeds are connected in standard definition, which looks really glitchy. Also, really seeing a pilot’s perspective requires having FPV goggles and tuning them into that pilot’s frequency. The accessible price point vanishes when you move up to high-speed HD. A new HD setup that promises no latency can now run to about $1,600, twice the cost of an average racing quad.
“You need to have instantaneous transmission — a few milliseconds can mean a 10-foot difference in the air,” Krell explains. For the good of the sport, Krell is sure that will change before too long: “People are saying that this is the fastest-growing sport, and I think once the HD video and all of those issues get sorted out … I think you’ll really start to see that tipping point real soon.”
But with parts manufacturers starting to sponsor pilots and personalities, money can become a non-issue. Everyone here talks about Luke Bannister, the 15-year-old Brit who took home $250,000 at the World Drone Prix in Dubai in March. There’s also talk of Charpu, some Spanish guy who’s trying to position himself as a PewDiePie-level drone celebrity with personalized YouTube videos. So far there’s no Z-Boys– or Bones Brigade–style crew that be touted as ambassadors for outsiders, yet …
Even if it's only SD, when I do get a chance to get into an operator’s first-person view — holy shit — I get it. I really, really get it. There’s an immersive VR quality to it that video games can’t quite touch. Even in standard definition, I’m lost in it. For those of us who won’t or can’t fly an airplane or an interstellar fighting craft, this is pretty much the closest we’ll get.
As the day winds down, Herg isn’t as excited as he was at the beginning. His first two runs were a bit of a bust.
“There are just too many variables,” he sighs. “I thought I could do the course slower and just couldn’t feel it. I lowered the angle of my camera and I should have just left it alone.” He knows that they’ll figure out all of these vagaries as the sport grows. “We’re just making it up as we go right now.”
Murdzak, on the other hand, has a nearly perfect round — nailing all but two gates for four laps in two minutes, he takes fifth place, securing himself a spot at Nationals. He’s stoked, but his optimism is bated — that’s a lot of practice he’s got to get in before August.
Where does it all go from here? Fine, I’ll say it: The sky is literally the limit … until we get space drones, of course.