Tempe Diablo Stadium was home to the North American Cup West Qualifier last weekend. The event was organized by the International Drone Racing Association (IDRA).
Reports are flowing in from pilots who were in Tempe that the event was riddled with technical problems. As one of the biggest US races this year, this was an opportunity for IDRA to work through these problems and start running a tighter ship while their events are still flying under mainstream radars. But all eyes are looking towards August when the IDRA will run the Drone Nationals in New York City – and have it livestreamed on ESPN3.
IDRA confirmed there were 90 registered pilots in attendance, with usual suspects taking top honors. Nytfury (Shaun Taylor) took 1st, Jordan Temkin in 2nd, FPVProvo (Christian Peterson) in 3rd and Zachry Thayer in 4th. These pilots are also qualified to compete at Drone Nationals.
The team races were won by Team Lumenier (Nick Willard, MAD_AIR (Cain Madere), KaBlah (Mark Chirino), McFly (Mackenna McClure), CodeRed (Cody Matson)). Zachry Thayer and Jordan Temkin also took first and second in the freestyle competition, with Ricky Martinez taking third. A total prize pool of $5,000 was handed out to winners.
On all three days the races started late. On Friday, Day 1, it was by three hours. The delays were mostly caused by video channel issues – working out which pilot should be on which channel to prevent overlapping RF signals. A technical problem with the ClearView systems meant only four pilots could race at a time, instead of five pilots as originally planned. According to Sahand Barati, CEO of IDRA, this was “the right decision because it would of been unfair to force pilots to use the video channel that kept having issues.” Lost time was made up by shifting the schedule of the freestyle competition and dropping the fourth round of flying. Friday racing ended an hour behind the original schedule, and Saturday finished after 1:00AM.
“The reason behind the video issues was do to the RF environment within the stadium. We were using brand new clear view [sic] systems and thus the delay was not due to an equipment or organizational failure but the RF environment. We quickly identified the issue and made adjustments to resolve the problem.” – Sahand Barati, CEO of IDRA
On Friday, the turn-around times, the time between each heat, were over 13 minutes on average. Pilots had to wait 3 hours to fly one heat for three minutes. By comparison, Mega Drone X, with 83 pilots, had 5-minute to 10-minute turn-around times, with pilots having to only wait 30-45 minutes in between their races. The other two days of Tempe were not much different with the exception that by the last day, Sunday, many pilots had left the event. This gave the remaining diehards more time to fly and lowered their wait times. Most pilots didn’t stick around to watch the finals, which speaks to the spectator experience at the event. Fortunately, no ESPN representatives were at this event.
This is a huge issue for pilots who take time off of work and spend thousands of dollars to travel to these events only to be able to fly 9-12 total heats. All the while burning up components because they sat on the pad too long or breaking their drones because they hit the unforgiving FPV LightTrax gates.
One of the biggest selling points for this race was the FPV LightTrax course. This was a huge 2,000ft “masterpiece” of a course with over 50 gates that are lit up by fluorescent tubes. As the Phoenix Cup videos showed, this is a huge draw for views on YouTube. However, the LightTrax is constructed from metal and few pilots have the finite control to be able to navigate the course without hitting the gates. The winner of the event, Nytfury, stated the pilot skill required was “demanding”. Sahand said, “Pilots really had to be on top of their game to compete against the best of the best.”
Many drones suffered an early demise because of the unforgiving metal gates. The gates are also so constricting that it makes racing harder to do. Trying to pass someone becomes very difficult when passing through 18 triangular gates in a row, with short sections of open space to be able to pass. This caused lots of mid-air collisions. To top it all off, a lot of the racing took place during the day, including the final races, where the magic of LightTrax is relegated to thin, white, hard to see squares on analog video. Pilots had to constantly adjust their camera settings from day to night and back again in order to be able to see as best they could and remain competitive.
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While the consensus among pilots is that the delays were terrible, they still say they had fun. Free flying on Sunday after the races were done generated a ton of beautiful videos. And pilots love meeting and hanging out with other pilots. This has, and probably always will be, a great reason to attend events of this magnitude. But the patience of pilots if finite. There has to be well run racing at these events, not just the social aspect, or else why even bring your quads?
The pressure is on IDRA to make their next event a more positive experience for pilots and spectators. And more importantly, can the IDRA pull off a successful event in front of the nation on ESPN? If they fail to meet the skyrocketing mainstream audience expectations, they could ruin the chances of drone racing becoming a more legitimate sport.