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Drones race for dollarsDrones race for dollars

National champion crowned in New YorkNational champion crowned in New York

Dozens of pilots, many of whom have been racing quadcopters and flying wings for just a year or two, tested their skills against one another on a twisting obstacle course built on Governors Island in New York to decide who is the fastest drone pilot in the country. A $50,000 purse was up for grabs at the 2016 U.S. National Drone Racing Championships, and network television cameras were on hand.
Quadcopters navigate through gates at speeds exceeding 60 mph at the U.S. National Drone Racing Championships. Jim Moore photo.

This was officially the second national championships in drone racing and was held on the first weekend in August. Dozens of competitors, hundreds of spectators, and a potential audience of thousands watching then or later via internet took it all in. The grassroots and so far chaotic sport, organized to varying degrees by disparate groups across the country, distilled this year to one national championship event billing itself as such.

Most of the competitors in the field of 145 pilots had never flown an aircraft from inside of one, though the experience would be familiar in some respects thanks to first-person view, or FPV cameras carried by the quadcopters and flying wings used in competition. Those cameras send images to the pilot, usually displayed inside of goggles, in real time, facilitating aircraft control. The field included relative FPV rookies like Tyler Deklyn Darby, who certainly has more first-person flying experience than most having logged 7,000 hours in a variety of aircraft including business jets. Darby holds five type ratings, currently works as a corporate pilot, and said radio controlled model aircraft fostered his interest in aviation when he was 13 years old. FPV racing, a variation on that theme, has helped rekindle his love of flying more recently, and the national championships marked his second foray into an organized race. Other pilots of manned aircraft should try it, he said, predicting it is impossible to fly a wing at 100 mph just a few inches from rocks and trees and competition course flags without having a ton of fun. The race track is prepared for action Aug. 7, the final day of the U.S. National Drone Racing Championships on Governors Island, New York. Jim Moore photo.

It'll make them fall in love with flying again,” Darby said, encouraging all pilots to give FPV a try.

The professional pilot said that had been his experience, that FPV had helped him find joy in all types of flying. “Work is work, sometimes, even if you love what you do," Darby said. "It loses its luster a little bit.”

But sitting in a chair on a racing stage with a radio controller in hands and goggles with tiny television screens covering your eyes creates an immersive experience that can make anyone forget he or she's not actually flying.

“You're sitting in a chair, flying a toy airplane, and you get so immersed in the moment, you duck,” Darby said. “It's awesome.”

Barely two years after organized drone races began to materialize around the country, the sport has found a home on a national television network (ESPN crews were on hand to stream the national championships live online), and is drawing a growing number of sponsors and pilots who can get themselves fitted out to race for about $1,000, give or take a few hundred, if starting from scratch. Organizers expect this accessible immersion will spark a wider interest in aviation as well.

“I’m building your next generation of pilots,” said Scot Refsland, chairman of the Drone Sports Association, which organized the event.

The Drone Sports Association is also putting together the World Drone Racing Championships slated for October at Kualoa Ranch, Hawaii. Don’t confuse that with the World Drone Prix held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, which awarded $250,000 of a $1 million total purse to British teen Luke Bannister in March, the largest prize to date for a sport that typically does not yet make enough prize or sponsor money available for its top-ranked pilots to quit their day job. Refsland's organization is not alone: Several leagues and organizations have put together individual events, or series, and the drone racing world remains every bit as chaotic, for now, as the races themselves.

A quadcopter launches for a heat at the 2016 U.S. National Drone Racing Championships Governors Island, New York.CEO Sahand Barati said the Drone Sports Association hopes to follow the footsteps of auto racing, which has gone from humble beginnings to a dominant force in modern media with billions in revenue. Making the drones larger, much larger, is part of the long-term vision, he said.

“We're going to see these things get huge over time," Barati said. "When they're the size of small cars, that's NASCAR. Aerial NASCAR."

Making bigger drones will solve one challenge that drone sports face: making events as exciting for the audience as they are for pilots. Without goggles to tune into the television signals coming from the tiny aircraft, the races are extremely hard to follow, a bit like watching hummingbirds from a distance. But the first-person camera has made the sport popular online.

Kevin Dougherty, who goes by 'StingersSwarm' in the drone racing world, at the 2016 U.S. National Drone Racing Championships. Jim Moore photo.

Airline pilot Kevin Dougherty, who has built an online following posting freestyle aerobatic videos on YouTube as “StingersSwarm,” said a pilot (of manned aircraft) has some advantages going in, given the knowledge of energy management and situational awareness that comes from flight training and experience. But that advantage only goes so far, he said, and the playing field soon levels. Dougherty did not win. He crashed his quadcopter at least a couple of times over the course of the weekend. (Many pilots did, regardless of their experience. Crashing is very much a part of the sport.)

Meanwhile, if you’re wondering who won, Zachry “A_Nub” Thayer of Laguna Niguel, California, is your 2016 U.S. National Drone Racing Champion.

Jim Moore

Jim Moore

Editor-Web Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot, as well as a certificated remote pilot, who enjoys competition aerobatics and flying drones.
Topics: Pilots, Unmanned Aircraft

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