The 2016 US National Drone Racing Championship (Drone Nationals) was a drone race that took place August 5th to the 7th on Governor’s Island in NYC
“Drone Nationals was not necessarily about the pilots. And I think that’s okay.” – Bulbufet
Speaking with Bulbufet (Paul Nurkkala) about his experience as a pilot at the 2016 Drone Nationals is like watching him fly. He knows where he’s headed before he starts, but he’s not afraid to pause and correct himself if he goes a little off. He speaks in a calm, measured tone. Maybe it’s the beard that gives him that Zen-like quality.
Bulbufet took second place at Drone Nationals, behind A_Nub (Zachry Thayer) and ahead of M3 (Christopher Wang). His second place prize package included $4,000 out of the $50,000 prize pot, antennas, props, a choice of motors, and a sweet trophy. Missing is a GoPro, odd for an event headlined by the company.
If you told Bulbufet while he was watching the 2015 Drone Nationals that he would be at next year’s race at New York’s Governor’s Island – and that he would outfly 75 top pilots, he would have laughed you out of the room.
The journey of Bulbufet to the Nationals is well documented on his YouTube channel through a series of vlogs. The first video he made was about what it means to him to be a multirotor (drone) pilot. To him it was never a hobby. It’s like playing an instrument. It’s a way to better yourself as a person. His dedication pays off with his vlogs showing ever-increasing skills and podium finishes.
“Why do I still want to do it? Why do I still like it? It’s a pain in the butt, quite often.” – Bulbufet
Most pilots at the Drone Nationals are on a journey like Bulbufet’s. They decided at some recent point that this wouldn’t be just for fun; they wouldn’t just fly to hang out with friends at the park. Pilots at Drone Nationals want drone racing to be their career.
What does it take to support professional pilots? This weekend’s Drone Nationals were the first step into that world, and it means happy spectators, happy sponsors, and frustrated pilots.
Scot Refsland, Chairman of the Drone Sports Association (DSA) and a force behind Drone Nationals, made a point of telling spectators every day that this was the first event where all 75 pilots racing in the individual race had to be qualified to be there. This wasn’t an invitational like the Drone Racing League or the DR1 Invitational, this wasn’t an open event like the Mega Drone X or a MultiGP event. These were career pilots, insofar as they exist, flying it out against big names and stiff competition. But at the end, there are only 3 pilots needed on the podium.
After last weekend, pilots might be feeling like they’re dispensable now. At drone races pilots usually have the opportunity to fly at least once an hour. Formats avoid single elimination rules in consideration of a sport still fraught with technical difficulties for both pilots and organizers. But not at Drone Nationals.
A delayed start on Day 1 meant most pilots only flew the course once for practice. The Day 2 qualifiers, thinning the pilots down to 32 competitors, stretched late into the evening to give pilots two chances to get a good qualifying time. Some pilots, including Bulbufet, were lucky enough to also fly the course more for the Team Relay Race. Overall, most pilots that made it past the qualifying round had only raced the course three times, with three laps per race.
On the final day, Day 3, the schedule was still “1.5 days behind,” all stemming from the inability to drive tires on the grass for course construction. Organizers decided to split the quarter-finals up into eight heats of four pilots and only advance the pilot who came in first (or crashed the last). The field of 32 was cut down to eight for the semi-finals.
“Everything we’ve been doing this weekend comes down to this one battery.” – Bulbufet
Pilots felt that pressure. In Bulbufet’s quarter-finals heat, JET (Jordan Temkin), one of the fastest pilots in the US and teammate of first place winner A_Nub, had a delayed start due to a technical problem. JET pushed hard to catch up and ended up crashing instead. Out of the eight heats only half lasted for all three laps. The other four ended after three out of four pilots in each heat crashed. Dealing with the strong winds on Day 3 added more difficulty to the course.
All of this means the pilots spent thousands of dollars of their own money (or for a lucky few their sponsor’s money) to travel to New York and put themselves up in a hotel for the weekend to fly just a handful of batteries. Worst of all, they felt out of the loop and not consulted on anything going on at the event. There was a glaring lack of communication between organizers and pilots.
No one was happy with this situation, including the organizers. Sahand Barati, CEO of DSA, told Third Law Sports that “When pilots aren’t happy, I’m not happy.” But something had to give. With the slimmed down bracket all of the final races were able to fit into the ESPN3 livestream schedule.
There was even time for a champagne pop and post-race interview with the winner, although half the audio was missing. The racing was also done in time for audience, pilots, and crew to catch the 7PM ferry off of Governor’s Island – the last ferry of the day. Organizers could have ordered another ferry, as they did for Day 2, but that would cost extra.
The Drone Nationals budget, an estimated $500k to $700k, was tight and costs were high. A Skyjack cost $8,000 to get onto the island and water had to be bought from a local vendor for close to retail prices. Hiring labor unions, flying and housing personnel, renting the space on the island, and dozens of other factors that go into a drone race cost multiples more in New York City. The year-old Drone Sports Association doesn’t have the luxury of negotiating with sponsors for more money.
Improving drone racing’s negotiating position was truly the goal for this year’s Drone Nationals. The prominent headline sponsors of Drone Nationals make this the first live event (with the possible exception of PepsiCo and DR1) where big money is paying attention to the profitability of their, or another’s, investment. Scot Refsland told Quartz “There’s a reason I held this 10 minutes from Wall Street.” He knows what pilots are saying about their experience, but for now he’s concerned with improving relationships with big sponsors.
“This is a big step forward for DSA and drone racing as a sport.” – Refsland
From all reports the sponsors, ESPN, and the weekend’s couple thousand live spectators were happy with what they saw. The finals took place on a warm, sunny day with the Statue of Liberty, Manhattan and New Jersey skylines visible in the background. Inland on the small island, a handful of kites floating above a hill completed the idyllic scenery.
The VIP tent, with more than enough food, drinks, and private bathrooms, was full all weekend with sponsor companies executives or possible future investors. The bleachers, “the Aquarium” (a clear-walled viewing deck in the middle of the course), and the nearby hillside were packed Sunday with fans like Owen Chernoff, a 13-year-old from Long Island who started flying in January and brought a controller for Charpu to sign, or people just being introduced to racing. To these people, outside of the sausage-making going on backstage and out of earshot of the grumbling pilots in the crowded pilots tent, the final day was wonderful. They saw an entire drone race in an hour and a half, plus cool preliminary events like wing racing and freestyle competition. Better than the Rio Olympics.
Up until this week the sport has existed for the pilots. They’ve organized races, watched races, and drove the technology forward for races. But that does have to change. A sport needs far more viewers than participants. Drone Nationals might be the defining moment when FPV racing changed from a pilot-driven sport to a spectator-driven sport.
Pilots are still bearing the weight of the sport during this change. They’re being asked to come fly and put on a show so that someday, maybe tomorrow or maybe the day after that, they can be paid for what they do.
“I know we’re trying to grow the sport bigger than it is,” said Bulbufet, “Without spectators, without investors, it’s pretty much impossible to do that. We’re trying to figure out what the happy medium is between spectators and pilots.”
Drone Nationals was certainly not in the happy medium. The Drone Worlds, taking place in Hawaii in early October, will be another shot for DSA to find it.