Todd Wahl is a director at the Drone Racing Club. As a drone enthusiast and self-confessed (and proud) tech nerd, he’s now at the forefront of the industry.
The Drone Racing Club is trying to bring the industry together, and it’s focused on delivering its mantra, “Build, Fly, Crash, Repeat”, to the masses. This is, according to Wahl, the only way to become a good FPV pilot. Simply, if you’re not crashing, you aren’t flying enough.
Todd spoke to Third Law Sports about the Drone Racing Club, STEM education, how drone pilots will be heavily in demand in the near future, and how FPV racing is uniting the geeks and the adrenaline junkies.
Third Law Sports: Todd, can you tell us a bit about your own background and your place in drone racing?
Todd Wahl: I first got involved in FPV for fun, and I built my first quadcopter back in 2005. The technology just wasn’t at the necessary level at the time for a business angle though this changed pretty quickly in the following years.
A couple of years back I began to look into the commercial aspect of drones and I attended a conference on the commercialization of drones in Spring of 2015. It was here that I got talking to Doug Andriuk, the founder of the Phoenix Drone Users Group which is one of the largest in the nation, about the potential of FPV, and how some ground rules were needed.
I’d toyed around with the idea of starting a league, and in fact the Drone Racing League beat me to the registration of that very name by about six business days back in April of last year! Yes, this is the same DRL which raised $8 million in funding. It was at this point that I met Chris Thomas, Founder of MultiGP. We came to an agreement that I’d focus on enriching and developing a sustainable system in the form of a club, and partner up with his MultiGP FPV Racing League. Any legitimate league needs this club component for the community, the meet-ups, the memberships, and the entertainment components.
The Drone Racing Club was born. I did some meet ups to discuss my idea and concept and it was very well received. People agreed that drone racing badly needed such an organisation.
TLS: Just how big is the potential of the commercialization of drones, and the potential for pilots?
Todd: As one example, the black hornet is a military micro UAV helicopter and is used in the military for reconnaissance, intel, search and rescue and other such operations. It’s designed to fly below the treeline, in and out of buildings and is unsurprisingly hard to pilot. This is where there’s an opportunity for FPV pilots.
In an urban environment or woodland the typical search and rescue is both incredibly time consuming and expensive for law enforcement agencies. An FPV pilot manning one of these drones can meticulously cover square miles in minutes, even in dense woodland. In addition to military operations, another commercial application is pipeline inspection and building inspection which require close proximity pilots, that is to say FPV racing pilots. This is just skimming the surface of the masses of opportunities that there’ll be for talented FPV pilots in the years to come. The future is ours!
TLS: Skeptics have raised their doubts about whether FPV racing can be a true spectator sport, at least in the traditional sense. Can it be, and what must be done for this to happen?
Todd: A lot of people talk about this as an issue but the last three major events we’ve held have eclipsed every other major event that’s been heavily publicized.
Despite being well funded the Drone Nationals didn’t get bums into seats, and neither did the World Drone Prix. At one event that we held at the Atlanta Metropolitan state college at the Robot Expo in late 2015 we had over 700 spectators in one day. Nobody else has done an event which has attracted that many people for the sole purpose of watching drone racing in person. I believe the reason we got so many on the day, and regularly hit far higher than average crowds, is that we approach events not just from a pilot point of view, but from that of the fans. These big events don’t tend to cater to the crowds. I have a team member at each event solely dedicated at answering questions from spectators and the general public.
This is key. If people don’t understand what’s going on and what means what then you won’t get any interest or retention.
Everything we do at the Drone Racing Club is about the advancement of the sport, and promoting and generating interest at a local level is absolutely vital.
Every event needs to have a personal engagement and an online engagement for those that can’t make it. This race was broadcast live via FPVLive.TV, which is another entity I’m involved in with Founder Chris Toombs and Daniel Gonnell. It’s vital to get this sport onto the millennial channels with a high quality and reliable live broadcast.
Those that can’t be present can feel like they are to as great a degree as possible. It’s also key to give the viewers the information they’re interested in and what they need to know to fully get their teeth into the sport.
All of this helps build FPV racing as a bona fide sport. It’s all about providing a learning experience whilst keeping it fun and memorable! When I do an FPVLive.tv event I often hold the interviews myself and I always ask four questions: what are you flying; why did you pick that set-up; are you a sponsored pilot; and what advice would you give to anyone looking to get into FPV Racing?
TLS: What’s the community like in drone racing? Is there a typical pilot demographic?
Todd: One thing that I love about this sport is that FPV racing is one of the least exclusive in the world. We have the geeks and the nerds side by side with the adrenaline junkies from ex-football players to former Air Force pilots, motocross fanatics, and more. It will continue to be become less exclusive too as prices inevitably fall.
FPV racing does not discriminate; we have members as young as eight and as old as eighty. It doesn’t discriminate in terms of age, gender and to a considerable extent physical abilities. It offers an out of body experience. As long as your hands and eyes are working fine, you’re good to go.
It’s one of few sports that you can do as an individual, as part of a team, and that also has commercial applications.
As such this community will grow. We want to help prepare people to make a decision over whether they’d like to do it professionally in some form. We try to put on an event on the second and fourth Saturday every month here in Atlanta to give these pilots a safe and responsible outlet.
At the DRC our directive is to challenge your speed, agility and skills as an FPV pilot and we set up each course accordingly.
TLS: I suppose BanniUK’s recent win at the World Drone Prix is evidence that it’s a sport in which age is no boundary.
Todd: Absolutely, Luke Bannister is a perfect example of this. So many kids now are adept to two stick operation meaning they have a head start in FPV racing and drone operation. For all of the parents who are concerned about their children playing too many video games, the enriching aspect and benefits of them can be clearly seen in his success.
There’s undoubtedly crossover between esports and drone racing. There are a number of FPV racing games such as Liftoff on Steam and FPV Freerider on mobile. These are great, and with pilots getting involved they’ll continue to improve. They’re also a cost effective way to see if it’s a sport which may be for you and are a lot of fun too.
TLS: What about the relationship between drone racing and STEM?
Todd: We’ve been contacted by a number of schools about drones in general and how we could work together to get kids interested in technology. In terms of drone racing, we’ve been working with a school called the Gwinett School for Maths Science and Technology which is STEM certified. We worked with them to build a drone to deliver equipment to fire fighters and this proved to be the basis for what looks set to be a great relationship.
It was recently agreed that we will start a drone racing club there next year which is fantastic news! In addition to this, a couple of our club members are aeronautical design students at Georgia Tech. We are assisting in the formation of a new FPV Racing Club on campus officially supported by the school.
We’re scheduled to run a race on the campus April 23rd as our first inaugural race in partnership with them and introduce drone racing to both students and faculty. We have a couple more colleges we’re working with as well to get on board. Our goal is to work with a select few STEM high schools and colleges to kick start the first inter-scholastic FPV Drone Racing League this year. We hope to work with MultiGP to proliferate this concept of an inter-scholastic league for schools to other regions after we test this idea.