There was a buzz in the air over a parched field in northern California. Amidst the dragonflies and hawks, a new type of aerial competition—the first of its size and scale—took to the skies yesterday (July 16). The first national drone racing championship started at the California State Fair in Sacramento.
More than 100 racers took part in the first day of a two-day event, based on small, custom-built drones in what is called first-person view (FPV) racing. The drones have cameras attached to them and broadcast video feeds back to specially-designed goggles that allow the pilots to see as the drones see. The pace of the races—the drones are fast and nimble, and can hit speeds nearing 70 mph—have led to comparisons with pod racing and speeder bike chases in Star Wars:
Rather like the start of many car races like Formula 1 or Nascar—which FPV enthusiasts are quick to compare to their own sport—the first day was a series of time trials for seeding. Racers had two chances to complete five laps of the course on Bonney Field at the fairgrounds, and their best time will be used to seed them for today’s final laps.
After the end of today (July 17), the racer with the fastest time around the track will be crowned the first national drone racing champion, as well as receive a cut of the $25,000 purse—and a really nifty gold buckle.
The racers’ tent was a hive of soldering irons, cargo shorts and energy drinks, as competitors tended to last-minute alterations on their flying rigs.
Zoe Stumbaugh, a racer from Santa Cruz and one of the few women in the competition, told Quartz that the event was like a real-life internet forum meetup. “You can finally put names to faces,” she said, speaking of the active communities on Reddit and FPV websites who were out in force competing at the event.
One of the fledgling sport’s big names is Carlos Puertolas, who races under the name of Charpu. He’s been called the best first-person drone racer in the world. It’s easy to see why:
However, like many racers on the first day, Charpu struggled to record a time he was happy with. Temperatures flirted with 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38C) throughout the day and a combination of the heat and technical glitches led to some hot tempers. Current radio technology developed for FPV only allows eight racers to fly at once, and with hundreds of radio-emitting around the track, there were some connectivity issues.
In some races, a drone or two would not take off due to a lack of a signal. There were also issues for the crowd: while the racers can see what their drones see, spectators are left to try to pick out which drone is which while the roughly foot-long drones whip around a tight circuit.
Scot Refsland, the competition’s organizer, tapped into the racers’ video feeds and put them on the big-screen Jumbotron at the event. But the feeds are low quality—to make sure the racers don’t get motion sickness from slower-to-stream HD video—and frequently cut out.
Refsland also enlisted the help of the French consumer drone company, Parrot: it was one of the marquee sponsors of the event, and provided a live aerial video feed of the races using—unsurprisingly—a few of its own Bebop drones. The crowd was thin on the opening day of the event, but Refsland expects better crowds today, as the weekend draws closer and the competition heats up.
The Federal Aviation Administration is still working on codifying its rules for flying drones in US airspace, but it plans to have them in place by next year. The FAA sent John Goldfluss, one of its West Coast aviation safety inspectors who usually works with events like air shows and air races, to see how the event was run.
Goldfluss told Quartz that although he’d only heard about the event about two weeks prior, he was impressed at how safely it was being run and had only “come to learn.” There were nets to protect any errant drones from hitting spectators, and an army of interns (sent from NASA’s nearby Ames research facility) to collect drones from the field after each race. Goldfluss was bullish on the future of drone racing. “If I had to deal with this on a regulatory basis,” Goldfluss said, “I’d use this as a model.”
In the evening, the racers partied at an event sponsored by Immersion RC, one of the event’s sponsors that makes FPV parts and ready-built drones. They drank beers and kept the in-real-life forum vibe alive, surrounded by ferris wheels, hotdog stands, and livestock showcases.
Today, the competition begins in earnest: the racers will try to record their fastest time around the track in one massive elimination round. The eight fastest racers will be pitted against each other in one final race to determine the champion and owner of the prized gold buckle.
Herve Pellarin, the drone racer who organized and uploaded the Star Wars viral video, was at the time trials. He works in the marketing departments of Fat Shark—the brand of video goggles most racers use—and Immersion RC. He thinks if more events like Refsland event can take place without major hitches, the sport could take off—”as long as no one gets killed.”
Stumbaugh said the Reddit pages and forums will probably go quiet during the races, but will spring back to life with a flurry of new FPV videos from the competition after it’s over. Pellarin thought similarly of the new sport: “This wouldn’t be here without the internet.”
While the sport is still in its early stages, there is interest from sponsors like GoPro (which is attending the event with a racer, as well as sponsoring the event). Stumbaugh was interviewed on national news ahead of the event, and Charpu had FPV enthusiasts of all ages coming up to him and asking for photos and advice throughout the day.
On whether the sport would thrive, Pellarin was cryptic but hopeful: “If you like the music, keep dancing.”