To Race a Drone You Must Be the Drone

First-person drone racing is taking off

When I arrived at the football field at Santa Cruz high school the air was abuzz. Literally. Not with a crowd’s anticipation, though the folks in the stands did seem ready for a show, but with the slash and hum of flying computers. Imagine someone repeatedly zipping a jacket at 100 MPH. Or an airport for wasps. That’s the feeling. They darted around gates, whizzed under PVC pipe and banked turns through a course spread over the football field. Pilots sat on the sidelines either controlling their crafts or tightening rotors, replacing batteries and readying their crafts for gametime.

This was a drone race.

“We’re going to be going hard today,” Kurt Somerville tells me. Kurt, stocky and originally from suburban Boston, wears a shirt that says “Rotor Guru,” and this is actually what people call him. Before the race, one of the organizers tells me they may have to handicap Rotor Guru to keep the field of play fair. They didn’t, but he’s that good.

Rotor Guru has been building unmanned aerial vehicles for over a decade, but only in the last year has he started first-person-view (FPV) racing. Previously pilots controlled drones using line of sight from the ground. But ever-faster processing speeds — catalyzed by the hot smartphone market — and dropping costs have allowed recreational drones to carry sharp onboard cameras. This imagery transmits fast enough that amateur pilots can don a pair of goggles — think Star Trek’s Geordi LaForge — and watch a first person point of view of the craft. They race “in” the cockpit.

Philippe Duvivier, a technology scout from French drone maker Parrot, gives me a pair of Epson interactive glasses, hooked up to a Parrot control system, and suddenly I’m peering through the drone’s eyes. Overlaid digital instrumentation, menus and grid lines show me the drone’s stabilization as it flies.

This is a video game set in reality. Ender’s Game come to life.

Or according to Zoe: “You feel like a superhero.”

Of 20 pilots at the race today, she is the lone lady. “We need more women flying drones,” the announcer says to the crowd. He describes an inexpensive model, and a pilot on the sidelines remarks, “Or about the cost of a girlfriend… but a lot cheaper than a wife.” He gets a good laugh. Another pilot notes he’s able to be here tonight because “the wife’s into it.” “That’s key,” remarks another.

I hadn’t noticed Zoe until her first heat. She won. She is 24, tall with blond ends to her hair and from Santa Cruz. Her mother Kathy is here as a cheering section. Zoe waves a hand to the crowd with a rolling flourish after her early victory and takes a bow as she picks up her hexacopter.

“Months of practice paying off,” she says as she walks back to her giant black suitcase of gear, glowing.

Typically amateur enthusiasts gather in parks and open spaces, a case of drinks nearby, and fly their rigs. But with the improving tech capabilities, perhaps naturally, first person racing is starting to burgeon. Drone racing already has lots of formal signals. “Pilot on the field.” “Goggles on” when about to race. “Walking out” when entering a field. Organizers also have to coordinate which pilots are on what frequency to control their drone; they have a narrow band and if two pilots pick up the same frequency, or even ones near each other, they will cross signals and suddenly be controlling each other’s crafts. Every pilot also has a spotter to follow a drone should it fly into the horizon.

Communities and serious competitions have been springing up from the Bay Area to France, sending drones through courses in the woods like the speeder bikes in Star Wars. Though there are models marketed for racing, most of these crafts are built in garages, either from scratch or with heavy modifications to products out of the box. Parrot doesn’t make models specifically for racing — yet. That’s why Philippe is here.

The impetus for this race is the Drones, Data X conference in Santa Cruz over the weekend. Heavyweights like Amazon, Google, GoPro and Facebook are all interested in how unmanned aerial vehicles can factor into their business. Facebook bought a solar-powered drone company to broadcast the Internet. Amazon may use them to deliver packages. GoPros are one of the most commonly mounted cameras on the nose of a drone. Who knows what Google wants with them but the company has shown an unending interest in robotics.

Parrot’s Philippe seems to only care about getting feedback from Rotor Guru. The other racers look on as he shows Rotor Guru a control system. Rotor Guru isn’t satisfied. “I need more forward pitch,” he says. And the drone’s fisheye camera actually makes it harder for him to fly because he can’t feel exactly which way the craft is leaning.

Discussion takes on that gearhead vernacular, like paintballers or motorcyclists. Drone enthusiasts look for people “to fly with.” Latest models are eyed with envy; someone calls a huge drone capturing race footage “the cadillac.” A non-pilot talks about the arc welding work on a drone he’s building that can hoist 68 pounds. Costs, rotor distance, battery, voltage, amperage, radio strength and weight, to name just a handful, are metrics bandied about with such regularity that they become a foreign tongue. Maybe someone switched to carbon fiber rotors; now the craft cuts on a dime. Maybe someone shaved off the landing pads; now there’s less drag. Maybe someone put a second HD camera on the rear; now there’s two reels of cool footage. Modifications are discussed with pride and one-upmanship. You did that — very nice — but check out this.

I chat with a 15-year-old boy who’s helping on the sidelines. He doesn’t play video games and is pretty excited about flying his own drone once he’s saved enough money. Why is he excited to race?

“It’s real life,” he says. “And the tinkering.”

That’s the word, or the concept you hear over and over on the sidelines, clearly the binding agent of the entire event. The competition is almost secondary. David Hitchcock, a self-described “blue collar kind of guy” who works on gas lines by day, has been tinkering with drones for over two years, typically from about 9 to 11 each night after he puts his two small children to bed. David doesn’t see how FPV drone racing won’t take off with kids. Rather than an Xbox birthday present, how about a drone. “He’s going to go down a rabbit hole to a whole new universe,” David says of this hypothetical kid.

Only in the last couple months has David been interested in racing. He’s just moved to Santa Cruz from Oakland and has been watching how racing has been taking off in parts of middle America.

“I was really surprised it took the East Bay so long,” David says.

I ask Zoe about her copter. “It’s all me,” she says. “Months of obsession.” She’s built the entire thing from parts. She has a huge black trunk with spare gear. She’s started building copters eight months ago and this is her first race. Fellow pilot Steven, age 16, tinkers with his rig nearby. He has been building copters with his dad since he was eight. He smiles and says to Zoe, “You’re going down!”

“Screw you,” she says, only returning half the fun.

Later I chat with Kathy, Zoe’s mom, about what drone racing has meant for her daughter. Turns out doctors had messed up some surgery for Zoe about 18 months ago. She was bed-ridden for a year. And then about eight months ago Kathy bought Zoe a small copter to fly from bed. A week later Zoe wanted a bigger one.

“A month after that, she was building them,” Kathy says.

Now Zoe runs Hexinair, a site dedicated to how-to’s on building copters, guides to local flying spots and videos of drone footage. Kathy watches her daughter, walking, out of bed, out on the racecourse retrieving her drone. She admits Zoe will probably be sore tomorrow. And then she begins to tear up.

“It’s been so good for her,” Kathy says.

The heats continue and while some are tight, Rotor Guru is clearly the pilot to beat. His drone is always quickest off the starter pad and slices the tightest turns around the gate. But there is something a tad eerie about watching him and any of the pilots race. They almost don’t move. Maybe a shoulder tilts on a tight bank, but for the most part they stare straight ahead — while out on the course their craft zips and dives everywhere. It’s tough to say whether FPV drone racing is more virtual or reality.

Of course, there are lots of crashes. Drones thwap into flags, lose control or just malfunction mid-flight. Most crashes are spectacular and spastic, the copter cartwheeling as rotors spin off and the crowd groans. But the pilots rarely flinch. Even still, you can’t help but picture the future, a floating arena with huge spacecrafts zipping around interstellar courses as humans cheer from space bleachers. And of course Star Wars references abound. A pilot on the sidelines starts looking through someone else’s pile of gear by accident and the owner jokes, “These are not the drones you are looking for.”

When you spend enough time looking for drones buzzing through the air, the rest of the world starts to feel a bit surreal. I watch something gliding over the trees and wonder who let their drone get that far away — but it turns out to be a seagull. An big housefly hovers over the starter’s table and buzzes away. Airliners pass way overhead and at first glance, they look like hovering drones. Over the loudspeaker the announcer paints a picture of a future overflowing with personal flying crafts. He mentions Zee Aero, a company in Mountain View building flying cars.

“No more traffic jams,” he promises. “That is the future.”

Chris Munoz rocks flip-flops, board shorts and an AC/DC shirt with the sleeves cut off to show off his tattoos. He runs his own finance company. “You wouldn’t know it.” He doesn’t race but likes to hang at the scene. His drone, black with carbon fiber rotors, looks like the batmobile. Chris points out to the road and then 180 degrees away, to the far trees, and claims his drone can cover that ground in a couple seconds; it can also fly to an altitude of 1600 feet. Today the law only allows drones to 400 feet.

“A lot of these guys are in online forums,” Rotor Guru says pointing around at the pilots. But “nobody goes by their real names” he says. One pilot’s t-shirt claims “Hacking is not a crime.” A lot of drone piloting is outside the law. The FAA is still trying to catch up to the exploding hobby. Chris worries about the FAA’s new rules on drones, due out sometime in the next couple years, will hinder his hobby with myopic rules. He says he writes a lot of letters.

The finals come around: Steven, Zoe and Rotor Guru. Some pilots had to bow out due to technical issues; others just plain lost.

The three lay their drones on the launch pads and step back to the sidelines. “Go!” The drones lift off and pitch forward. They weave around the first gate, bank hard right and head down the course. Zoe jumps to an early lead. Roto Guru is on her tail and now it’s hard not to see that scene in Star Wars where they’re racing speeder bikes through the Redwood trees.

The three complete a lap. But Steven dips too low. The ground snatches his drone and the craft cartwheels to a stop, pieces flying into the air. He pulls off his goggles and looks around with a sheepish smile. He’s out.

Now we’re down to Zoe and Rotor Guru.

This would be playing out like the plot of a cheesy sports movie except that Rotor Guru is a nice guy. But clearly the sidelines don’t expect him to lose to Zoe.

“Rotor Guru has to be a quarter prop down,” says someone.

No matter how he tries, he can’t catch her. Both of them sit statue still on the sideline, their thumbs working furiously. At one turn Rotor Guru cuts down the angle and closes on Zoe but her hexacopter is still too fast. On the final straightaway she blasts the engines, leaving him in the dust, and punches through the finish line.

In celebration Zoe sends her hexacopter high into the air. The crowd cheers. But she doesn’t move. She’s still staring straight ahead, fingers working the controller. Finally, she pulls off her goggles and takes in the accolades with another characteristic bow. When she thinks no one’s looking she snaps her fingers and pumps her fist.

She, Steven and Rotor Guru chat with the announcer like the post-game interviews at any sporting event. Rotor Guru is gracious in defeat, offering up support to all the racers. Zoe is awarded a new quadcopter for first prize. You can already see the gears turning on how she’ll modify the craft.

“I came in here to prove a point,” Zoe says later, easing back in her chair on the sidelines. “And not come in last.” A few pilots come by to check out Zoe’s rig. She gives one a card. Kathy beams at her daughter. The sun drops lower behind the trees and the stands empty of spectators.

Zoe takes it all in. “And this feels pretty damn good,” she says.

Photos by Caleb Garling
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