For the past year we’ve been mesmerized by high-speed, first-person-view race videos from skilled drone pilots around the world, whizzing their quadcopters in between forest trees and parking-garage pylons. Their dexterity through potential destruction has elevated a few of these pilots to superstar status. But, aside from community events, there had not yet been a large, sanctioned race to bring all the best pilots together and see who stands above the rest. That is, until the 2015 Fat Shark Drone Racing National Championships.
We visited the Cal Expo soccer stadium at Sacramento’s California State Fair last week to watch 120 daredevil FPV pilots from nine different countries take to the air against each other in a battle of who’s who. With $25,000 on the line, national and international media on site, and nearly every drone maker, affiliated company and agency in attendance, the stakes were high and the races were furious. And in the end quite a few interesting notes stood out, the biggest of all being the promising potential for this type of event as evidenced by the large support it received.
“There’s a big demand from the manufacture side to the pilot side to the public side. Even the regulatory agencies, there’s a big demand,” explained organizer and race director Scot Refsland about the impressive size of the event prior to its launch. Refsland had been putting together FPV races in Berkeley’s marina-adjacent Cesar Chavez Park when the California State Fair team reached out to him about hosting a race at their annual mid-July event.
With just a few months to arrange everything he decided to go big. Refsland connected with the FAA and the AMA (Academy of Model Aeronautics, a massive group and possibly the heaviest-hitter in the R/C racing world) about the event. Although traditionally hesitant about multirotors, the two groups voiced their support, evidencing the mainstream direction that the community is heading towards. Sponsors lined up, with FPV goggle maker Fat Shark claiming the naming rights to the event. The prize purse helped pull in the racers, although many would have shown up regardless — these FPV pilots are pretty diehard, as early participants of new movements tend to be. A video team came on board to live-stream the races from aerial Parrot Bebop drones (another sponsor), like NASCAR and other sports might do in a year or two (ESPN purportedly had some of its tech team in attendance for research). The organizers settled on wireless race-tracking technology alongside human refereeing, and scheduled a few days worth of practice racing before the final two days’ worth of heats and finals.
Showing up the morning of the finals, the first thing that stood out at the event were the “drone races” signs that directed spectators through the carnival rides and games to the stadium. At the arena’s entrance, a few vendors had booths set up to sell their drone-racing products. There were tables full of dozens and dozens of carbon fiber racing frames, waiting for an inspired hobbyist to wire up the motors and controllers. The quantity of these frames stood out as an indication of how this is already a sizable community.
Inside the arena, cones and sponsor-promoting flags laid out the circuitous course over the soccer field. A lengthy tent spanning the end zone provided location for the bulk of the activity — check-in, repair tables, broadcast booth, a VIP/media area, trophies, and some concessions. With 120 racers and maybe twice as many others on site, the space was constantly crowded, and felt quite jovial.
The second tent, on the 50 yard line, had a different vibe — this was where the pressure of the race ramped up to its most ominous level. Pilots were brought here for their rounds on the course. Each was given a tag for tracking their rig as it zipped around and through the hoops and turns. Individual referees sat alongside, goggled up to watch the race through the lens of their assigned racer’s quad. Runners stood with them, ready to carry and place each pilot’s multirotor on its starting spot once the pilot got everything powered up and connected. And close-looming cameras — including those from some big outlets (CBS Morning News, Univision, and others) — further increased the tension on the pilots.
From a purely racing perspective, one of the biggest takeaways was how the pressure of the event affected many of the pilots, including and even especially the notable ones. The size and scrutiny of the races brought out a case of the shakes for many of them, this being their first time in a fully sanctioned winner-take-all event.
By the end of the day, nine pilots were placed in the individual finals. Carlos “Charpu” Puertolas, possibly the most notable FPV pilot of all, didn’t make it. Neither did Mr. Steele, another top flier, who had earlier posted the fastest lap time of the day at 19.347 seconds (he did place 2nd for the freestyle, however). And of those nine, only four completed the five-lap circuit, with Australian Chad “FinalGlideAUS” Nowak taking home the trophy. He topped that off with the top spot for the freestyle flight competition, and was also part of the winning team-racing crew. With more than a lion’s share of the prize money, it might be fair to say that he is the world’s first professional drone-racing pilot.
It was a very fun event, but the races do have room for improvement. The small rigs are hard to keep track of from the spectator’s perspective, especially in a sea of logo-bearing flags. With so many wireless signals, technical hiccups tested the patience of many of the pilots. And having to wait for the winner to be announced reduces some of the thrill of a finish-line sport. But remember, this was the first major event of its size. Undoubtedly, the organizers noted countless improvements for the next. The pilots in attendance all take home valuable lessons, and are surely now practicing anew, working on tight turns and distraction-minimizing techniques. And new fliers were born that day too, some of whom will rise up quickly — this sport is months, not years, old, with the best pilots only flying for a similar amount of time.
We saw the first national championships happen, and it’s only up from here.