Drone racing's flight club
As the aerial sport readies for its California State Fair debut, our writer checks out the scene
Hundreds of feet above an undeveloped plot of land in Sacramento covered in thistle and dry grass, a handful of drones light up the summer sky with colorful LEDs. As they circle above the empty field on this Thursday night, a crowd of approximately 50 people, young and old, watches the makeshift aerial light show from a nearby parking lot, sipping drinks and barbecuing hot dogs. A small group of experienced pilots sport homemade black T-shirts that read “Flight Club.” A few feet away, young children play with radio-controlled cars on an empty street.
The scene makes for just one of many informal Sacramento-area gatherings for drone and model aircraft hobbyists. Others take place on different nights in Rocklin, Elk Grove and Roseville.
Here in Sacramento, passersby often see the lights and drones and stop to watch for a little while. Crowds of spectators always get bigger as the night goes on, explains Sean Wendland, a local drone enthusiast who created the Sacramento Area Parkflyers online forum about four years ago. This growing meetup is just one example of how fast drones have become popular both for commercial use and recreation.
And the trend has hardly reached peak altitude, Wendland says. Eventually, drones could become easily accessible, everyday recreation.
“Imagine, in the future, just like they have skate parks everywhere, they’ll have [drone] racing places with permanent tracks and everything all set up,” he says.
Actually, people don’t just have to imagine—they can check out the hobby this week when Wendland and other enthusiasts bring a drone racing event to the California State Fair. A collaborative effort between local drone experts, the State Fair and the Bay Area company Flying Grounds Inc., the 2015 U.S. National Drone Racing Championships will feature individuals and teams flying drones around and through obstacles at Bonney Field. There will also be a combat fighting cage for drones and a freestyle flying competition.
It’s not all just fun and games, though. Wendland and other local pilots will help monitor safety by making sure everyone who’s registered actually has the skills to fly drones near spectators.
Mechanical devices flying throughout the air? The potential for trouble is big, Wendland says.
“We’re kind of like the safety marshals … or flight directors,” he says. “You could do quite a bit of damage with it if you think about it.”Game of drones
Here at the Sacramento meetup, a middle-age man wades through the thick field of thistle. He’s been looking for his lost drone for weeks. After a few hours of searching, he gives up in favor of watching the other pilots. There’s probably a handful of other lost and ill-fated planes and model aircraft in that field, too, explains Wendland.
Some spectacular crashes are even caught on film. A recent YouTube video shows one member of Flight Club (a subset of Sacramento Area Parkflyers) flying a winged hobby aircraft in the Mather area when a hawk swoops in and attacks the device. Another clip shows members of the Flight Club racing when a couple of planes knock into each other as a third flies in from behind and films the whole thing.
The first rule of Flight Club is—well, there aren’t really any. But drone safety is definitely important, because crashes do happen. Currently, drones are regulated by a mishmash of laws, and they’re different for commercial pilots and hobbyists. Meanwhile, local enthusiasts have been trying to self-regulate—making sure to test aircraft before using them, not flying near full-size aircraft and not operating too close to people.
“Four years ago, before the [Federal Aviation Aadministration] even knew we existed, we were calling airports, figuring that stuff out,” says Wendland. “That’s one of the reasons we got called in to the nationals, [for] our expertise.”
But even without official commercial regulations in place—those are coming in 2016, according to the FAA—there is enormously large economic potential for drones. They’re already being used in international warfare, search and rescue, journalism, photography and sports. The Chinese-based company SZ DJI Technology Co.—which makes a popular line of hobby drones called the Phantom—is worth $8 billion, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal.
People looking to tap into this new market can even take classes from Drone Universities, a nationwide school that is sponsoring the nationals and offers classes in Sacramento. Pilots earn an average of $50,000 to $60,000 a year—and up to $160,000 a year—according to Drone Universities teacher and blogger Sam Estrin.
But pilots trying out drones for the first time might want to save those tuition fees and start much smaller.
“I usually recommend that people go with a $30 or $40 toy that you can buy at Fry’s or RC Country,” says James Curtis, a pilot who is scheduled to race at the nationals. “Just get something to practice on and bash, to see if you’ve got the potential to work your way up from there—before immediately crashing like $400 worth of racing gear right out of the gates.”
Curtis, who’s been flying drones for about three years, says that even though it’s a relatively new sport, racing has attracted legions to the drone community. To meet the increased demand, Wendland recently started talks with the Bay Area-based Aerial Sports League to bring regular racing events to Sacramento.
Before that, Curtis says the State Fair races will pit some of the best racers and teams in the country against local hobbyists as well as community inventors and tinkerers flying experimental builds.
“Someone in the drone community innovates one part of it, and somebody else will innovate another part of it” says pilot Jeff Lautrup. “Then you just gotta put it all together.”Young guns
Back at the drone meetup, a number of people turn to look at one innovative plane in particular, all at the same time. It hovers over the empty field using four small helicopter-like blades, then spreads its wings and takes off, flying just like a plane.
Someone in the crowd says it’s probably a drone they saw on Kickstarter a while back. It has two flight modes, explains Wendland: The wings help it cover long distances, and the copter blades allow it to hover for short periods. It’s exactly the type of drone he’s heard that Amazon is testing for mail deliveries.
Yet such companies that are testing drones like Google and Amazon—the latter which recently announced it’ll start trying drone deliveries next year—might have a hard time with FAA regulations. The agency announced earlier this year that it plans to ban first-person view (FPV) flying, which would make flying a drone for delivery impossible, says Wendland.
Then again, just next month, the FAA’s experimenting with allowing FPV for a publicity event that will allow unmanned aircraft to deliver medical supplies to a medical clinic in Virginia. It’s also allowing companies like CNN to use FPV for coverage of events that are otherwise not filmable.
Whatever ends up happening with commercial industry regulations, it’s safe to say that today’s kids will probably take drones to the next level and imagine new uses for them—especially if they’re growing up playing with them as toys and attending drone universities.
“Oh god, you should see my son,” says Lautrup. “He’s 13—dude, he’s like ’zip, zip, zip’ [with a drone]. They’ve got the video-game skills and it’s like a video game—with consequences.”
“At the nationals, it’s going to be a little kid with a little quad copter who’s going to win, bar none,” adds Wendland.
Meanwhile, near the field of thistle, pilots continue to learn from each other, wait for FAA regulations and push the boundaries of what drones can do. A few years ago, the big innovation was getting small, powerful motors that could power an RC aircraft. Next, it’s going to be improving battery technology, says Wendland.
“Just imagine, basically, a world when drones are an accepted tool and used for everything they’re possibly used for. Then put yourself there, and think about where we go from there.”