Drones

The 2016 Drone Nationals: Day 1

View of the Drone Nationals are from the nearby hills
Credit: AIG Facebook

The 2016 US National Drone Racing Championship (Drone Nationals) is a drone race being held August 5th to the 7th, 2016 on Governor’s Island in NYC

145 pilots, and hundreds more organizers, sponsors, volunteers, and spectators have gathered on Governor’s Island off the southern tip of Manhattan to kick off the first day of Drone Nationals. In front of the skyline of the city, and the Statue of Liberty, pilots have started practicing on the course in hope of winning honor, and the $50,000 cash prize.

Yesterday, Day 0, was a setup day that stretched into this morning. An unsteady ground, comprised of a sandy beach barely covered with grass that’s adapted to grow here, is impossible for heavy trucks and equipment to drive on. Organizers, and even CEO Sahand Barati, had to position wooden planks by hand around to form makeshift roads that got the trucks where they needed to go.

Wood planks support heavy equipment on governor's island

While the course was being finished, Scot Refsland, Chairman of the Drone Sports Association (the organization behind Drone Nationals) led all of the pilots in a walkthrough of the course. For the pilots this was their first opportunity to familiarize themselves with the layout. A map had been sent to the pilots earlier, but the lack of details meant pilots had a hard time duplicating the course for practice. Some practiced “in general”, while others didn’t practice at all.

Pilots loved the course as they grew familiar with it. The huge track has wide open spaces with a variable height and fast turns. It’s designed as a true head to head race to see which pilot can fly the fastest, and not just the one that can avoid the obstacles. It’s a big course that forces pilots to make decisions on how to conserve battery power during their flight or if they need to fly with a longer lasting, but heavier, battery.

Spectators were in awe too, once the flying actually started. Despite only being a practice day, around 100 people came throughout the day to watch the racing. Some, usually the youngest ones, were already huge fans of drone racing. They came from across the country, or only from uptown, to see the pilots they’ve been watching on YouTube and Instagram. One teenager was getting pilots to sign blades on his propellers. And these fanatics all have plans to be competing next year. Other spectators just happened to be biking by or went there on a whim. But they were soon fans too.

Bleachers were set up right by the start, and finish, of the track for the audience to get close to the action. Protective netting rose up 30 feet into the air to separate the drones from the spectators. To the side, the VIP tent was filled most of the day with people escaping the sun and heat with complimentary cocktail. Although, many of these people were invited to the event and didn’t pony up the $600 needed for a VIP ticket. Connected to the VIP tent was a VR tent where people could try their hand at flying a digital rendering of the actual Drone Nationals course, using a proper drone controller.

A big highlight for the audience was a fishtank (a.k.a Aquarium) section of the track. An extended platform went right into the middle of the course with plexiglass on either side. On top of the platform was a gate that drones flew through. At one point in the practice a drone flew into the glass with a loud bang, spinning into the grass while its battery spun into the netting. The kids in the Aquarium loved it.

The fishtank at 2016 drone nationals

Yet despite the size of Drone Nationals, the well-designed bells and whistles, and the headline making sponsors, pilots (and various reporters) are a little hesitant to say drone racing has finally made it. Pilots didn’t, rightfully, expect to get much individual flying in today. Like what usually happens at other large events, they waited patiently most of the day just to get one practice heat in. It’s this waiting that’s created a subdued mood on Governor’s Island.

But the patience extends to the event itself. This is the first day, with two more to go. The real race starts tomorrow and so does the real Drone Nationals.

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