Events, Trends

Here’s What Happened at the National Drone Racing Championships


Sponsored by AIG, Ernst & Young, and GoPro, and broadcast by ESPN, this month’s National Drone Racing Championships in NYC featured qualified and impassioned contestants from around the country. It’s safer than racing cars, motorcycles, horses, or ostriches. These pilots are essentially playing a video game — a flight simulator with the worst consequence being that you crash and damage your RC quadcopter and need to make some repairs. And there are a lot of crashes in drone racing — from what I witnessed, only about half the entrants actually finish their races — and they all have replacement kits. Spare rotors and soldering irons are in abundance.

Check out our exclusive video from the event below, then read on for more coverage!
It’s most certainly a fierce competition, and skill plays a big part, even if it may seem more like an “eSport” than a traditional one. This year marks the second-annual championship, with the first having taken place in Sacramento last year, with a lot of the same — but anyone could enter that one. This is the first year that all of the pilots had to qualify in regional races around the country in order to race at the National Finals.

This contestant crashed his copter going through the finish line. He advanced to the next round.

This racer crashed his drone into the protective netting.
Attending the championships convinced me most of how much fun it must be to race these things. I don’t know if ESPN will be able to enhance the viewing experience to the point of actually making it entertaining to watch as a spectator, but I imagine they’ve succeeded in making a lot more people want to buy their own racing drones and take a stab at the course.

A racing quadcopter buzzing around the course. These sell for an average of about $500
If you’re starting out, you’ll probably want to purchase a spare drone for parts and brush up on your soldering skills, but it’s easy to see the popularity of the sport rising for participants. For the viewing experience, they also still need to work out some analog-downlink issues. Several pilots I spoke with had issues with the video feed into their headset. If you can’t see it, you can’t fly it. I also spoke with someone representing Connex and their ProSight HD Drone Vision System, which claims to be the world’s first latency-free all-digital wireless transmission system for FPV racing. This type of upgrade can’t come soon enough.

The “Fishtank” viewing area was an idea hatched by CEO Scot Refsland after visiting an aquarium.

The drone-racing course set up on Governors Island.
The video feed to the large screen set up near the grandstand also had its issues. A quad-split video feed would be great for the grandstand audience to see all the pilots’ FPV feeds at once. Or they could pass out headsets to each audience member so that they can see what the pilots see — there are many ways to enhance this viewing experience. There was a live MC/announcer calling out the “ready, set, go” protocol and asking pilots to arm their quads before taking off from their launchpads to whizz around the course for three laps. There were also a couple of Drone Sports Association announcers doing a livestream behind an ad-hoc newsdesk.

The announcers communicating the races to an online audience.

This year’s winner, Zachery “A_Nub” Thayer, will be racing in the World Championship in Hawaii in October.

It’s apparent that this event is in its nascency, but it’s equally apparent that in terms of growth potential, the sky’s the limit. For more info on drone racing, visit the Drone Sports Association’s website.