Drones

Why everyone’s talking about Mega Drone X

Course Map Mega Drone X 2016

Mega Drone X was a drone racing event on April 30 and May 1, 2016. The race was organized by Derby City Drone Racing.

Last weekend 83 pilots converged on a cave in Kentucky. Inside, a converted BMX track lit with LED arrows, hoops, and gates lay ready to host two days of shaking thumbs and broken props. Time trial races with three classes of drones (separated by the size of the propellers), a team relay race, and a special sponsored race were all about to happen.

Mega Drone X (MDX) took five months to happen. Back on November 20 2015, Wai Lam, co-chair for Derby City Drone Racing, posted a YouTube video showing off the Mega Cavern in Louisville, Kentucky by flying a drone around the massive underground area. At the end he gauged the interest of the drone racing community in holding a race there: “Like what you see?”

By January 2016 the community had responded. The world’s first subterranean drone race was on.

Why interest was so strong

The venue was the strongest pull. Races are often held at outside fields, warehouses, or weirdly ungulating custom built tracks. This might be the only opportunity for pilots to fly underground. And really, the course at MDX is just plain cool.

A photo posted by Adam Kobitz (@hyphpv) on


The chance to qualify for the US Drone Nationals was another reason not to miss the race. In February, it was announced via video update that the organization behind Drone Nationals (RotorSports, before the merger with IDRA) had seen the appeal of MDX and were on board. The top pilots at the cavern would be invited to attend the huge drone race in New York City this August. The US Drone Nationals was the largest single event in 2015, and will be shown live on ESPN this year.

The organization and communication leading up to the event kept the hype strong. Wai Lam released consistent updates detailing the technical aspects, where to stay and eat in Louisville, and everything else pilots wanted to know. Frank Mattingly, another co-chair at Derby City Drone Racing, led a Facebook group for pilots and race organizers to stay in touch. There was no confusion about to expect or how to prepare for MDX.

The openness extended to the pilot registration list. There were no high entry fees. No video or physical pre-qualifiers. Just an online registration and, later on, the pilot badge.

Unknown pilots were going to be racing with world famous ones like BrainDrain (Brian Morris), the pilot of the second place team at the $1 million World Drone Prix in Dubai. The 80 open chairs filled up in March and a wait list grew.

Saturday delays

By the week of the event everyone was ready to fly. Practice courses had been flown and road trips had begun.

But despite the preparation, everyone knows drone races never go as planned.

How would the Mega Drone X plan survive its encounter with reality?

Helping to organize the race was Joe Scully with FPV Racing Events. As the race director and announcer, and a veteran of race organization, he knew “Preparation is everything. Test, then test again.” Unfortunately the security and safety needs of the unique venue kept the preparation time shorter than the setup crew would have liked.

“It was a 13 hour set up, but we only had 7 hours,” explained Scully. Despite starting on Friday, on Saturday morning there was still a guy with a shovel leveling off the flight path at the last minute. An incompatible printer at the race director’s table meant heat sheets (PDF link – the lists of pilots who are flying in each race) couldn’t be printed out. A limit of 50 people, again for safety reasons, inside the cave area meant most pilots had to wait outside. A complete lack of cell service delayed contact and organization of the 100+ people in attendance.

But in comparison to what could, and has at other races, go wrong, these are all minor stumbles. The big technical challenges that plague the sport of drone racing had been met. Mostly this is the challenge of sending video and radio signals from eight different drones to the right goggles and controllers of the correct pilot.

By 11:05AM (EST) the first heat was on and drones were off the ground. Eight pilots flew five laps, twisting around rock pillars, under low gates and through a series of hoops dubbed the ‘tunnel of love’.

Tunnel of Love from Mega Drone X 2016

Meanwhile, Chris Toombs with FPVLive.tv was busy running the livestream. Connected through a hardline internet, the stream provided FPV video from racing pilots, the audio commentary from Scully, and video of the pit area during the downtime. The YouTube stream chat filled up with spectators from New Jersey, Florida, France, and Belgium. Some were pilots wishing they were there. Most were fans of the sport wanting to catch a unique race. The friendly chat covered which pilots they were supporting (“go Bulbufet!”), how they were watching (“connected the stream to my big screen TV”), or throwing out pretend bets for the winner of each heat.

The day has come. Live FPV racing from Kentucky to my big screen in New Jersey….awesome.

A video posted by Frank Walka (@frankdubbs) on

And then more delays cropped up. Saturday was considered the practice session and qualifiers for the main races on Sunday – the races where final winners would be invited to race at the Drone Nationals. Many of the pilots in these beginning heats had never flown at an event of this scale. This, in combination with the 50 person limit, resulted in pilots taking too long to be ready to fly. Specific radio channels are assigned to each pilot to prevent crossed control signals. It takes extra time for inexperienced pilots to tune to their assigned channel. The heat sheets created before the race had to be adapted on the fly for some pilots who didn’t know their race was coming up and missed it altogether.

In the first round of races it took 10 minutes between each group of pilots to fly.

Four races were also re-run because of video signal issues. In the first turn of the race three pillars of rock blocked signals from getting to the pilot’s goggles. For a couple hundred milliseconds, or a couple seconds if the drone is flying slowly, all the pilot could see was static fuzz. Veteran pilots know this is a part of drone racing to deal with. New pilots, already nervous from being at a big event, have a hard time adapting to a sudden loss of vision.

Course Map Mega Drone X 2016

Over at the livestream, a sudden loss of the hardline internet forced the stream to move onto the overworked WiFi. YouTube bandwidth issues meant most of the spectators suffered through video or audio loss, or just a spinning buffer icon. The stream was consistently better straight from FPVLive.tv and new viewers coming into the YouTube chat were directed to watch there.

The fun went on despite the complications. Food trucks outside the cave, invited to come by Derby City, sold wraps in the morning and Kentucky BBQ in the evening.

An online drone giveaway kept #MegaDroneX on every social feed and brought new livestream viewers in. Pilots also had their own raffle giveaway inside the cave – one pilot winning a Slim Jim as a gag gift. Freestyle drone action, and even a paraglider, filled the caverns between races. Pilots flooded social media with pictures and vids from the race. The common theme was that this was one of the most fun and well organized races they’d ever been to.

By the second round of races, the time between each group was down to 8 minutes and 40 seconds. 74 heats ran in 13 hours of racing on Saturday.

Sunday drama

Sunday was the big day. The two other formats of racing provided the morning entertainment. The Rotor X Relay had teams of pilots landed and flew drones one after another, provided a frenzy of wild racing. The Detroit Multirotor HD Runcam Challenge had all pilots using the same drones and gear. Using the same equipment meant it was a true test of flying skill – without individual gear problems to worry about. This was also the opportunity for pilots to capture high definition video with the extra HD camera strapped to the drone.

But the biggest excitement came later in the day.

The championship races were originally scheduled for 4PM (EST). The delays on Saturday had bled into Sunday and kept pushing the time back. As evening came some pilots began gathering their equipment to head back to the airport and fly home for work on Monday morning. Even with the rising popularity of drone racing, being a full time drone racer isn’t a solid career path.

Among the pilots who had to leave was BrainDrain, plus Zoomas (Steve Zoumas) of Drone Racing League (DRL) fame. Some of the most well-known pilots in the world were going to miss out on the championship races of MDX.

By now the event had reached 18+ hours of straight drone racing. Heat after heat of pilots changing out chairs and radio channels. Some drones crashed into gates or cavern walls on the first laps. Others zipped around the five laps and finished the heat with inverted turns or loops before landing.

On the livestream chat, friendships had been made over the two days. There were promises to fly together made and tips for rebuilding a crashed drone being swapped. Viewers had let the stream running in the background (to some family protests) all through Saturday and now into Sunday. Between races Scully or other officials and volunteers answered questions, gave interviews, and explained what was happening in the cave.

Then word filtered underground that BrainDrain’s flight had been canceled due to the weather. He was coming back to fly. But first he had to wait for his luggage – and the drones packed inside. The decision was made that if BrainDrain could get back in time for the final race for each class he’d retain his spots among the final eight pilots. Otherwise, it’d be given to the next finalist down in the races still being ran.

In this third round of racing, the time between each flight group was at 5 minutes and 6 seconds, shattering previous all-time event records of 7 minutes and 30 seconds.

Heats continued and the list of fastest pilots narrowed down. People in cavern and on the livestream celebrated the victories and commiserated with the crashes, but the question was still in everyone’s mind: “Will BrainDrain make it back time?”

Even after United Airlines finally unpacked the luggage from the plane there was still a 15 minute drive from the airport to the Mega Cavern.

At 8:33PM(EST) the stream chat erupted in cheers. BrainDrain had abandoned his luggage and was back, without any drones. Fortunately, the racing community is well known for its friendly and cooperative mindset. Pilots who were racing against BrainDrain a couple hours ago offered him their own equipment to fly with. A short time later he was ready to go.

The championship race of the 4 Inch Class came first.

Beast Mode (Terry Arscott) and Cfischer (Chris Fischer) take each other down almost at the start. WillardFPV (Nick Willard) meets the ground not long after. Armonic (Eric Milewski) takes the early lead with RS2K (Kalyn Doerr) close behind. Feeling the pressure, Armonic crashes amongst the LED hoops in the second lap. Jordan Temkin (Jordan Temkin) slips into first but can’t hold onto the leader either. He goes down on the third lap. RS2K takes and holds the lead in the fourth lap. No Longer A Noob (Zachry Thayer) comes in 10 seconds behind for second place. BrainDrain follows 1/10th of a second behind that for third place.

The winning race time? 1 minute and 33 seconds. Drone racing happens fast. If you get up for a drink you might miss it all.

Jordan Temkin, Armonic, and WillardFPV took first through third for the 5 Inch Class. In the 6 Inch Class, Beast Mode powered back up and took first place. WillardFPV grabbed second, and BrainDrain found himself on the same spot on the podium at third place.

Full Championship Race List (PDF)

6 Inch Class Winners Podium

At the end of the night Charles Zablan, co-founder of IDRA, passed out certificates to the top pilots that declared their qualification for the US Drone Nationals. MDX crew and pilots cleared out and poured into nearby bars. Parties took off, running on the fumes of the strangely exhilarating exhaustion that comes from two very full days of racing.

The Mega Cavern was empty by 11PM. After an estimated 9,000 views, the livestream chat shut down with a last unanswered “Hello?”

The future of MDX

If you ask the pilots who were at MDX they’ll cheerfully tell you they weren’t there to win any qualifiers, or even the races really. They wanted to fly on a spectacular course. Or fly with their friends from around the country. Or make new friends. They’d have been happy with any event that helped grow the sport.

MDX beat that low bar by miles. Pilots and spectators have been vocal on social media in their appreciation of Wai Lam and Frank Mattingly with Derby City Drone Racing, Joe Scully with FPV Racing Events, and Chris Toombs with FPVLive.tv. Through their organizational skills an entire season of drone racing was fit into two days – in front of a live audience.

Official video from the race will be released soon.

Fans also appreciated the Mega Cavern of Louisville, Kentucky. Employees went out of their way to help the race be a success. Cavern officials are reportedly excited by the turnout at the event and look forward to hosting it next year.

Plans are already being formed for MDX 2017. After the massive interest shown this year, there will be more room added to the pilot list. Another day of racing will also be added. Changes behind the scenes will be made to streamline equipment setup and technical fixes. Pilots trust that Derby City Drone Racing will keep them updated on any other changes.

So to sum it up?

A mix of great organization, drama, and thrilling races on a one-of-a-kind course is why everyone’s talking about Mega Drone X. And why they’re looking forward to Mega Drone X 2017.

 

Edit 5/6/16: Corrected the spelling of Jordan Temkin.
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