OPINION: No Lessons Learned at Drone Nationals 2016

Nelson Aquino at Drone Nationals
Credit: Al Quiro

Kruel (Nelson Aquino) shares his thoughts as a pilot about the 2016 Drone Nationals

It has been just a little over a year when Scot Refsland organized the first major drone race in the US with a 25,000 prize pool in California. It was wrought with problems but since it was the first race of that scope all was forgiven and the pilots where happy to be able to meet everyone there. That inaugural race arguably really kicked the racing scene into high gear. Since then, hundreds if not thousands of races, both large and small have happened all over the world.

The improvements in race and frequency management have improved 10 fold since the last Drone Nationals.

The expectation from the pilots in attendance for this year’s race was high. This isn’t something new anymore, they had seen it all from very well managed events to disasters like Dubai. The leadership of the Drone Sports Association (DSA) had seen them too, as they were present to learn the lessons of Dubai as well.

So when it came to Drone Nationals 2016, everyone expected DSA to have learned from their mistakes and the mistakes of others. Did they? Not. One. Bit. The pilot experience at Drone Nationals 2016 was horrendous, pilots report only having 2-5 opportunities to fly in 4 days. Competition rules were changed on the fly and communication between the organizers and pilots was filled with problems. This almost felt like Dubai 2.0: Awesome track, great people, and horrible organization.

I wrote about my experience when I traveled to Dubai and I will take the same approach about my experience with Drone Nationals. So grab a cup of your favorite beverage and join me as we go over Drone Nationals 2016.

The true purpose of DN16: Competition

Let’s start by saying that Drone Nationals 2016 was a competition. Sure, it was definitely fun to catch up with pilots that you met before and to meet new ones you have only spoken to online, but it was definitely a competition. Or that’s what it’s advertised as anyway. One major, if not the major, flaw of the Drone Nationals competition at its foundation was how they handled their qualifying events.

These events were mostly held by individuals who were not employees or affiliated by the DSA, they contacted or were contacted by the DSA to make their events “Drone Nationals Qualifiers”. There are several issues with that. All the events had different formats, rules, specifications to participate. There was no one standardized track or spec sheet, so people could not be measured by the same standards. For Teams, several teams qualified using the Nasquad or endurance race style while others qualified by heads up racing with points. Up until a few days before Drone Nationals took place, the DSA barely had information as to how their team races would be ran.

Finally, to everyone’s delight an additional practice day was added on Thursday from 12 Noon till 4 PM so people who wanted to try and get the extra practice (almost everyone) made plans to fly in a day early to try and get the edge in this competition.

In the end, the race felt more like an exhibition or show and was never a true competition, due to the nature of how the schedule was mishandled everything was rushed and in a sport where even the best of the best crash, people were not afforded ample opportunities to prove themselves or have ‘throw away’ rounds as is common in quite a few other events.

Grade: F

One of the pillars of race management: Communication

Communication leading up to the event was scarce, hard to find and often changed. Team Rules were not decided until a couple of days before the event, and even so changed just about every day during the event itself.

During the race, heat sheets were handed out or posted, but often changed. Pilots were directed to and from the staging area due to having the wrong information. The race coordinators often had conflicting information and instructions.

Pilots found out about their standings hours after they ran their heat or the next day. Standings for the Team Races and qualifying times were released after the race was over.

Most importantly, the prize breakdown of the advertised $50,000 pool has yet to be announced as of 2:03 PM, Tuesday after the race.

Grade: F

If there is one thing about real estate in New York City: Location! Location! Location!

Governor’s Island is beautiful, old brick buildings and military castles where the prime downtown and midtown skylines serve as a backdrop. The Statue of Liberty so close that a mini quad could probably make the flight there. It was a reminder of how far the sport has come, the ferry to the island served as both a transport to the race and important social gathering spot for pilots to meet. At one point almost all of the biggest names in the industry were on one boat. Jokes flew around that if that boat sank, the entire racing hobby would have gone down with it. Overall that was an awesome experience.

The walk to the race was about ¾ of a mile, hauling gear to and from the boat proved to be exhausting but still worth it to walk along the shore line and watch the epic views. There were also bikes for rent that many participants took advantage of. Some people took the downtime in the races to ride their bikes all around the island.

The island however proved to be difficult, for all its glory it was probably the main cause of huge delays. Getting gear into and out of the island was challenging, especially if most of it had to be hauled in by hand. Setting up the huge structures on the island was a tedious task, as vehicles were not allowed on the grass. The organizers had to take wooden planks and make impromptu roads on the grass for the Sky Jacks to raise the structures needed for the start gate and ‘Aquarium”.

The “Aquarium” was awesome! It was a box with 1” ballistic glass on 3 sides. Spectators rotated in there giving them views of quads screaming towards, away and on top of them. Several quads crashed into the glass at full speed (yours truly being one of them) giving the audience a hell of a show, the Oohs and Ahhs when someone “rung the dinner bell” as quads hit glass and metal structures always was a crowd pleaser.

Overall the venue was fantastic. The track was innovative and a pleasure to fly. The colored dots and gates were a very nice touch, you can tell they took a lot of time to make sure the spectators had as much visibility of the races as possible. That came at the cost of actual racing though, as the actual logistics of using the island proved to be the major pain point of setting up.

Grade: B+

As with any Drone Race: Technology is on the forefront

There were plenty of vendors on site showing off their new warez, quite a few VR stations that were in constant use throughout the day and lots of Alien ware laptops with the LiftOff simulator introducing people to the sport.

One of the biggest debuts of the race were the new video transmitters (VTX) being released by ImmersionRC. In short, these transmitters also came with an NFC attachment allowing the Race Directors to use a ‘wand’ to set the channels on the video transmitters without having them power on. A problem that has plagued races since the start, where someone might plug in their transmitter while a race was going on, probably knocking someone out of the race who is flying on the same channel.

The technology was actually used in the French nationals to great success, but the lack of experience from the directors at Drone Nationals did not allow them to use the wand to its full potential. I still believe this technology is definitely worthwhile, but maybe as a standard to be used across different vendors instead of just one who can monopolize the racing scene.

The VTX also got very hot, very quickly, even while be used on low power outputs. Several burned while sitting on the flight line and on the wings as they waited to launch. This is partially the fault of the organizers for not being to launch races quickly, but at the same time. There are many transmitters out there who can sit with no airflow for a very long time without burning up.

Another piece of technology that was supposed to debut was also the ability to time racers by using the RF frequency of their video channel instead of using traditional IR transmitters attached to the drones. Apparently this was also used to great success in France, but the system underwent an upgrade before arriving to Drone Nationals which actually caused it to break. The majority of the timing was done manually by the judges using USB keyboards. When the time between the ability to move on or get disqualified comes down to tenths or hundredths of a second, human timing is not accurate enough. This didn’t bode well for those people who barely missed their qualifying shot.

The placement of the video receivers which feed into the googles pilots was not optimal the first two days, even after experienced Race Directors like Joe Scully suggested they be lifted on a sky jack in order to look past all of the metal structures the quads were flying through. Finally on the third day, the organizers listened and video issues drastically improved.

I am not quite sure how much testing the organizers did, but it sure didn’t seem like enough. Its common practice to try to set up your race environment as close to the real thing as possible. And obviously setting up the metal structures would have been costly. But they might have been able to test Thursday morning if they had ran on time.

Grade: C

One of the Pillars of Drone Racing: Organization

I am going to break this down by days because this is already way too lengthy:

Day 1 – Thursday

Track not even remotely ready to fly, all major structures not built yet

Pilots flew a few packs around some trees nearby to test their VTX with the wand capability

Pilots remained patient as the scope of the event became more apparent. We all understood that these things happen. Governor’s island is not friendly towards having wheels on the grass so the organizers had to make plank bridges to move equipment and track materials back and forth. No one flew the track, some folks flew the trees nearby. People paid extra to fly in Wednesday night and expensive hotels to practice on Thursday didn’t get that at all. Bummer.

Day 2 – Friday Practice Day

By now everyone expected the track to be finished, it was not, the first half of the day was spent sitting around and not flying, the organizers started getting people on the track towards the latter half of the day, individuals and team races started flying, but there were still building literally building the track as people were flying. People would do one lap only to find out on their second lap there was a structure placed right in front of a gate. People still walking around the active track literally laying down as quads flew by at top speed.

Mostly everyone’s patience at this point started to wear thin, qualifiers were the next day and no one got sufficient practice. The organizers spent a good 2-3 hours in the latter half of the day allowing the Freestylers to “practice” Meaning 1 person was flying at a time while 100 pilots stood around and waited. The organizers later decided to allow 3-4 Freestylers to practice at the same time but it was only for a few minutes as everyone had to get off the island on the Ferry which was already running past its normal operating hours. Individual Quad pilots got to fly 1 practice battery, Teams got to fly one practice battery on the still unfinished track backwards, and Wing pilots got to fly one battery of practice.

Day 3 – Saturday Qualifying Day

Already way behind schedule, individual qualifiers didn’t get to start flying until past Noon when they were supposed to start at 10 AM after the wings. Individual pilots got 2 packs of practice and only because the organizers once again extended the operating hours of the ferry to get off the island till 9 PM instead of 6 PM. Teams did not get to do any qualifying runs and the team rules were still in flux. They didn’t know if they would be flying 25 laps, 5 individual laps, or if they would need to swap batteries. The organizers were insisting on giving teams “protective gear” to have them run out on an active racetrack to retrieve their quads. Heats of individual pilots started advancing a bit quicker at this point once again towards the end of the day, 2 hours were dedicated to give 18-20 Freestylers practice.

Day 4 – Championship Sunday

By now all hopes and patience from the pilots were gone, there was just no way that the event would be finished on time with all the allotted events the organizers still had to finish. Team Qualifier, Team Finals, Individual Semi Finals, Wing Semi Finals, Individual Finals and Wing Finals. The organizers had to change and/or reduce the amount of qualifying and semifinal rounds for the Individual Pilots.

The top 32 were supposed to be reduced to 16, then 8, then 4. In the end it went from 32 to 8 as they ran 8 heats of 4 pilots each with the 1st place advancing to the final round. The same thing happened with Wings. Team Races were a mess as there was no true seeding the second group of teams was arguably the most difficult out of the 15 participating teams, first, second, and third place finishers were all in the second group. To make things worse, one team did not get to qualify because of technical issues, the organizers responded by placing that team in the finals. It was rushed, disorganized and many people felt it wasn’t even a true competition.

Grade: F

Final Thoughts

There have been so many events and so many examples of what not to do. The “premier” event of the US has no excuses of what not do. It seems they found that list and did almost everything on them.

They really need to take a step back, do not run multiple disciplines on the same day (instead, one day for quads, one day for teams, one day for wings, one day for freestyle).

The DSA probably has less than 20 events under their belt. They have really exceeded at the marketing game and brought in major dollars and sponsors into the sport. But if they really care about the sport they need to use their talents to promote the sport as a whole, including the people like MultiGP who have ran hundreds of races in the past year.

As for me attending next year’s event or Worlds in Hawaii, the only way I will put up with the level of fail again is if someone pays my expenses to go.


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