On a cool October night, after the stores in a shopping mall had closed, six young drone racers gathered in a subterranean parking garage to hone their aviation skills. Using remote control joysticks, they navigated small X-shaped drones around pylons and beneath shopping carts, each vying for the lead.
The young men all work steady jobs, but racing drones, they said, has become a consuming new passion.
“It’s all I think about,” said Richard Howarth, one of the pilots. “I feel like we are at the beginning of something big.”
When an emerging sport is said to be underground, the term is rarely meant to be this literal.
The pilots are in the forefront of the nascent but growing sport of drone racing, which, in just over a year, has spiraled from scattered handfuls of hobbyists to a promising new competition. Race organizers are hailing the potential for televised races and significant financial purses.
“We see this as the future,” said Charles Zablan, chief operating officer of the International Drone Racing Association, a league of more than 500 members, based in Los Angeles, that was created in April. “This can be just like the X Games, motocross racing and Red Bull air racing.”
Perhaps, but at the moment, drone racing remains in its formative stages. Among the hurdles, Zablan said: Competition rules are still being figured out; the spectator experience is flawed; and no one knows quite how the sport will be managed, or by whom. Courses are mostly set up in open fields, but that is likely to change as groups seek more exotic venues like forests, abandoned buildings or even World Heritage sites.
“We are at the pioneering stage,” Zablan said. “We don’t even know what this is yet or what it could be, but we know it’s fun and cool.”
What the sport needs most at this stage is money, and in the last few months it has started to flow. In August, another organization, the Drone Racing League, announced a $1 million investment from the Miami Dolphins owner Stephen M. Ross through his investment arm RSE Ventures. The league’s chief executive, Nicholas Horbaczewski, would not reveal its plans, but he acknowledged reports that described races similar to video game competitions held in large arenas. Horbaczewski said the company’s first major event would be in early 2016.
In July, the U.S. drone racing championships, an event organized by the sports entertainment company RotorSports, were held at the California State Fair and included a $25,000 purse. Next year, the company said, it will organize a world drone racing championships in Hawaii, with a purse of $100,000. The company expects the event to attract more than 300 pilots, many of them from Europe, where the sport is also growing.
In the Los Angeles area, which some are calling the mecca of drone racing because of the large number of pilots who live and fly there, the International Drone Racing Association held its first championship Saturday. Called the California Cup, the event lured several hundred spectators who stood behind nets inside a cavernous building and watched racers compete at the SoCal Maker Convention in Pomona, California.
With the incessant angry wasp buzz of drones in the air, racers competed in three events, one each for drones 250 and 300 millimeters wide, as well as a freestyle event in which points were awarded for maneuvers like flips, turns and loops.
Pilots navigate the drones using a remote control with two joysticks that control altitude, speed and direction. They wear large goggles that broadcast live standard definition video from a camera mounted on the front of the drone. It is this first-person view technology (FPV) that has given the sport a major boost, allowing pilots to feel as if they are in the drone. The experience, they said, is similar to the Podracing scenes from “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace.”
The drone frames are made of light but sturdy material like carbon fiber, and are little more than small platforms for motors, a battery, electronic circuitry and four to six propellers. Most are of the four-motor variety and are thus better known among hobbyists as quadcopters, or quads, rather than drones.
“Three years ago, this technology was so expensive, so unattainable, that only the professional cinematographer could afford it,” Zablan said. Now, he said, a full racing kit with FPV goggles can be bought for about $1,000.
The drone industry as a whole, experts said, is experiencing rapid growth, with 2015 expected to be a defining year. A report released in June by the Consumer Electronics Association predicted the U.S. market for consumer drones would reach $105 million in revenue this year, up more than 50 percent from 2014. Unit sales, given the expectations for a strong Christmas season, are predicted to be near 700,000, an increase of more than 60 percent
At the PiroFlip hobby shop in Van Nuys, California, the owner Sergio Marachilian, a drone pilot, said his whole inventory had shifted over the last year.
“A year ago, we were selling mostly RC helicopters and some quads,” he said, using the shorthand for radio-controlled vehicles. “But now all anyone wants are racing drones.”
At the California Cup qualifying race in San Diego in October, the racers’ point-of-view video could be seen through goggle headsets. Each drone broadcasts at a frequency that can be dialed into, but for those who watch through the ungainly goggles without having their own thumbs on the controls, the experience can be disorienting, if not nauseating, as least initially. And because of the inherent technological challenges of broadcasting live video at high speed with a tiny camera, the image is often grainy and easily distorted by radio interference.
“We’re not getting the quality that is the standard right now for television broadcast,” Zablan said. “That’s the key, having that high-definition quality.”
Which gets to one of the issues that could affect drone racing’s ultimate success as a mainstream spectator sport. Racing drones can fly at speeds up to 70 mph, making them very hard for spectators without FPV goggles to see. Even when they fly slower and are performing maneuvers just a few feet above the ground, discerning exactly what they are doing (was that a flip or a twist?) can be difficult.
“It’s like watching two hummingbirds zip around the yard,” said Keith Robertson, a drone racer from Palos Verdes, California.
This is a reason the future of drone racing may be online rather than in live competitions. Many of the racers here record their drones’ acrobatics using an additional camera like a GoPro mounted on top, creating video that can be downloaded later off the camera. The best moments can then be edited into a high-resolution video with music and posted online.
“The biggest accelerator of this sport has been Instagram and YouTube,” said Zablan, who readily admitted to the sport’s shortcomings and said that efforts were under way to improve the spectator experience.
Scot Refsland, the race director for RotorSports, based in Berkeley, California, said his company was working on a system to deliver live high-definition video from racing drones, as well as a robotic camera system that could follow drones around the course.
“We hope it will look like a full-on high-definition NASCAR event,” Refsland said. Also important is finding a way to build excitement around promising racers by offering sponsorships and free gear. “For most of us watching, it’s still just a bunch of nerds standing in a field racing,” he said. “We want everyone to know who the pilots are.”
In fact, the popularity of online drone video has minted several minor celebrities. Some videos of Carlos Puertolas, a pilot who goes by the name Charpu, have more than 1 million views. In one of his most popular videos, Puertolas’ drone flies through open windows and down long corridors of an abandoned hospital in Spain. He flies it beneath cars and through tight spaces seemingly impossible to navigate.
“Charpu is as close to a god in FPV, I think, as you can get,” said Robertson, one of the competing pilots. “Charpu is the one who started it all — at least for me. I think his videos really inspired a lot of people to get into this hobby.”
A recent Los Angeles transplant born in Spain, Puertolas said he was drawn to the sport after years of competing in skateboarding and in-line skating.
“To me, it’s like an extreme sport but for older people, so you don’t hurt yourself,” he said.
Puertolas, an animator at DreamWorks Animation in Glendale, California, showed off some of his flying skills in the underground garage, a place in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles that he asked not be identified lest it become too popular among other pilots. When asked, he insisted that permission was given by the security guard.
“We don’t fly around people or cars,” Puertolas said. “That’s why we are here so late after everyone is gone.”
Underground garages are the perfect places to build the skill set needed to compete, he said. Low ceilings force pilots to fly low, and ample obstacles like shopping carts and concrete pillars are ideal for pushing them to the limits of their navigational abilities. Even among the best pilots, crashes are common.
“We go through a lot of props,” Puertolas said, referring to the frequent breakage of the drones’ plastic propellers.
Racing drones are smaller and more raw looking than their better-known quadcopter brethren, like the DJI Phantom, the world’s best-selling consumer drone. The Phantom weighs nearly 3 pounds, has a bulky white plastic cover and comes ready to fly. Racing drones, by contrast, weigh just over a pound and are often assembled from parts ordered online or bought at a hobby store.
Some see the sport advancing so quickly that it might soon be available as a school elective.
“Think of it from the perspective of a high school kid,” said Chris Thomas, president of MultiGP, a racing league based in Melbourne, Florida. “You have the option of being in band or in football. What’s in the middle? This is a great type of sport that can merge the gap.”
In the public’s eye, however, drones still seem to have a long way to go before they are widely embraced. Reports of drones being flown near wildfires and over people’s houses have prompted a backlash. Still, some believe their bad reputation will pass once they become more common.
“Whether it’s rap music, comic books or computer games, people always want to get mad at something,” said Howarth, a British-born racer who now lives and flies his drone in Los Angeles. “And it has been drones for a while, but once people get on board, they will calm down and stop calling the police.”
At the California Cup finals in Pomona, Puertolas, who took second in the 250-millimeter competition, seemed satisfied that he had maintained his reputation as one of the sport’s more promising fliers. And while he recently found a sponsor in the drone manufacturing company Lumenier, which has developed a racing drone with his name on it, he said he was in no hurry to quit his day job.
“I will definitely keep flying, but at the moment, for me, this is just a hobby,” he said. “I need to make sure I always find time to spend with my girlfriend and my dog.”