Chris Thomas is the founder and president of MultiGP. MultiGP is a competitive racing league for first-person view (FPV) radio-controlled quadcopters, better known as drone racing.
We chatted about the importance of FPV racing learning to walk before it tries to run, grassroots clubs, and how drone racing can become the soccer of the technology age.
TLS: Can you tell us a little about the background of MultiGP and just how fast are you currently experiencing growth? It seems like it’s ballooning out down many different avenues.
Chris Thomas: In the past year it’s been akin to trying to drink out of a fire hydrant! My first exposure to drone racing was purely down to chance – a Vimeo video posted by Romeo Barrera which used the same song as one I’d just uploaded. The video was titled ‘drone racing’ and it just so happened that he lived nearby. I met with this group that next weekend, and my adventure began.
I bought my first drone, had my first race and quickly became involved as a race organizer. The group was happy to oblige as the vast majority of people want to race; far fewer want to run the events.
I found out why pretty soon as my first event was a failure.
I spent the next weekend obsessively researching all facets of FPV and the next weekend the races went flawlessly! I sat down that Monday with some programmers and my excitement led me to asking them to embark on a side project with me…this was the beginning of MultiGP.
It was never intended to be a league, but a few weeks later I came across an organisation called AerialGP and my increasing exposure to different organisations, and various leagues within FPV at that time, led me to thinking MultiGP could be a leader in this field. Nobody I was speaking to had the same grand vision as I did – I was of the opinion that drone racing would be the new soccer, that there’d be fields everywhere with kids, teams and coaches.
I maintain this view that drone racing is the soccer of the technology age, and it got me to thinking that MultiGP could be the foundation for this.
We’ve been building from the ground up and expanding via the creation of local chapters throughout the US, and globally too. I never envisioned MultiGP growing beyond the US but the growth has been at a phenomenal speed! We believe that it’s vital that we change the world’s view before we can grow the sport. So many times I’ve heard the response to what we do as “Oh I’ve heard of drones, but I didn’t know people raced them!” As such, we’re hugely focused on laying down the grassroots. At present, we’re adding over one chapter a day, and we currently have over 303 chapters worldwide.
One message that I want to get out there is that becoming a MultiGP chapter is free of charge! I believe it’s a common misconception that we charge for this, and one it’s important to make clear. We’re looking to grow the sport before we look to make a profit, and there’ll undoubtedly be opportunities for that down the line.
Where we’re at with MultiGP today is something I’m incredibly excited about. There is no FPV racing organisation that is even remotely close to the size of what we’ve built and are building. We’re getting ready to run our 2,000th event, we have over 300 chapters, over 7,000 participating pilots and it’s growing daily. It’s a runaway train which is showing no signs of slowing down.
TLS: You offer FPV racing classes. What format do they take, who are the instructors and what have the demographics of sign ups been like to date?
Chris: Our whole organisation is built on the grassroots level meaning it’s community focused. The process is that a group will apply to become a MultiGP chapter for its community, if they pass the application process then they begin provisional. This is a period during which we teach them how to successfully run events.
These classes are taught by the more established and experienced chapters, and in turn the student chapters learn, put on events and, in time, become the teachers.
One of our requirements to become a high ranked chapter is that you have to run classes for your local area to teach people how to race.
High ranked chapters receive flags and various other prizes from our sponsors.
Getting involved in your local chapter is the best way for someone to get involved and cut their teeth on drone racing. They’ll teach you how to fly and give you any guidance you need.
The President of AMA came to me at an event last year asking for FPV racing advice. He’s been in RC his whole life, he’s hugely experienced and to introduce somebody like that to drone racing was fantastic. The local clubs provide this kind of resource to anyone and everyone.
TLS: With the World Drone Prix out the way for this year, which single event are you most excited about in 2016?
Chris: We’ve broken down the development of MultiGP into three stages. The first was the development of local chapters and our goal was to get to 200 chapters which we accomplished toward the end of 2015.
We’ve now moved onto the second stage which is aimed at providing real, serious contests.
This is organized as local events which lead into regional finals, which then feed into our championship. Our regional this year is primarily in the US with some expansion into Canada.
We’d love to do it worldwide, and I’ve no doubt that we will, but we’re still in the beta stage. We want to make sure we’ve got everything right and know that we can do it successfully first before we go all out. Our regionals this year are made up of 40 events, and those that are successful during these qualifiers will make it into the regional finals. There’ll be 15 of these with all pilots aiming to get to the MultiGP Championship.
This is by far the event I’m most anticipating this year. It should be the best system by which to establish the best US pilot. We don’t care about their YouTube following. There’s plenty of great pilots that are making a name for themselves online, but there’s also a huge number that nobody knows about. We’re hoping that this series is going to find them.
TLS: One fascinating aspect of FPV races is their versatility in regards to location. What have been some of the coolest venues and courses in your experience to date?
Chris: Last year I went to 65 different races. We flew at a beautiful technical school in Florida, and we have a great relationship with an indoor go-kart track company called K1 Speed who have 35 locations. We’ve made it our goal to fly inside all of them.
Our first introduction to Harrison Gale’s XDC (Xtreme Drone Circuit) was flying inside a casino. Part of the track meant pilots had to fly through the kitchen, over the bar, and out the serving door. It was blind commitment at 60mph, and being off by even one degree would have been catastrophic for both the drone and the kitchen. Shaun Taylor somehow won this event.
Something else worth mentioning here is the work of artist David Moquay, who’s one of the three founders of FPVLightrax.
They’re focused on night racing harnessing multiple LEDs and gates. He put up a total of 106 gates at the Phoenix Cup in February, the sensation of flying this course was an adrenaline overload and seeing the pilots take them on was quite something. Zach from Big Whoop did one exceptional flight here.
TLS: What are your thoughts about the role of simulators in FPV racing?
Chris: I’d love for a simulator company to see the value in an established relationship with MultiGP. It may well happen, but for now some of our pilots have added selected MultiGP courses onto Liftoff, and we’re familiar with the game’s developers.
There have been mixed reviews of the simulators, and they can be bittersweet as it can lead to people being lazy about going out and flying for real.
One pilot who’s a great ambassador for drone racing simulators however is Nelson ‘Kruel’ Aquino who flew for Gravity Goons during the Dubai World Prix. He came out of nowhere having trained on the simulators and is living proof they can create good pilots.
TLS: What are your aims and targets for MultiGP for the rest of 2016?
Chris: First of all we want to make drone racing and our current series accessible for anybody in the US, to the extent that they know about and are able to go down to their local club and try it out.
We’ll soon be shifting our attention to event activation, and premier level events.
It’s something that is oft seen as a weakness of our organization..that we don’t put on enough big, flashy events. We understand the importance of these to promote the sport but we see it as our duty that if we inspire you to race that we also give you an outlet to race yourself somewhere nearby. If we don’t do that, we’ve let people down.
TLS: You’ve branched out of North America.. What is the FPV racing scene like throughout Europe?
Chris: Every country has its own climates, and its own thoughts and patterns. We’re always looking to partner and we’ve already established a number of European chapters, in Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, Slovenia, Sweden, Estonia and Germany.
Our presence in Europe is growing and we’ve a huge respect and interest in each of them but from a time and budgetary point of view we’re initially focusing our efforts on growing the scene in the US first.
TLS: Does drone racing need a celebrity superstar to take off?
Chris: I’d say there’s already a few out there already! Shaun ‘Nytfury’ Taylor for example, I’ve never seen him not finish in the top three of a race. He’s an unbelievably talented pilot and is one of the very best out there today, but the very best part is that he doesn’t know it (hopefully he doesn’t read this).
The truth is though that I don’t think drone racing is ready for a superstar in the vein of Michael Jordon or Cristiano Ronaldo. Until there are enough people racing we don’t need a superstar.
One place that I think this sport can go that traditional sports have not is into engineering, and education.
This sport has huge opportunities career wise outside of racing; pilots learn how to assemble and build their drone, which parts work together and the hows and whys. It has enormous potential for educating kids and getting them excited about engineering. This sport is a great problem solving tool, and the troubleshooting process is a learning experience everytime.
Truth be told, if it wasn’t for the fun of racing, I wouldn’t spend anywhere near as much time trying to fix the drones I fly.
The MultiGP inaugural season started in February 2015, and they offer events aimed at pilots of all levels with different chapters across the US. As it stands there are over 300 official chapters and MultiGP offers over 50 events per week throughout North America and Europe.