Drone Worlds 2016 – Lessons learned


The Drone Worlds 2016 recently took place in Hawaii. Pilots from 30 something countries showed up having been sold on the dream of flying at Kualoa Ranch, the set of everybody’s 90s favourite Jurassic Park.

With $100,000 up for grabs and GoPro the title sponsor, as it was for the Drone Nationals in New York, there was certainly cause for excitement, and it’s not too surprising that so many shelled out and made the journey.

This dream however turned out to be a misadventure.

Organised by the DSA, the Drone Worlds 2016 was, to put it lightly, disappointing. Late course set ups, late rule changes at the event, tech problems, below par facilities and poor communication with pilots have all been put forward as criticisms. These problems dragged down the Worlds just as some of them did the Nationals that preceded it. 

Undoubtedly, when the rains subsided the scene on Oahu was sublime and such a backdrop for flying quads has yet to be matched by any other major event to date. Of course, one snag was the time of year. As a tropical island Oahu in particular typically sees a considerable amount of its rainfall in October and November (November is the second rainiest month, whilst October is fifth), and with quads tending not to like the wind and rain too much perhaps this event would have been better planned for another time of year, or else, a drier location?


We got in touch with DSA Head Scot Refsland for his take on all this. He said: “I’m sorry and apologize to anyone that came to the event and felt let down. The takeaways, feedback and lessons are substantial and hopefully can be used for years to come by all drone racing organizers and pilots to create better conditions for organized racing, including operations, race management, safety, participant care, sponsorship and regulatory affairs. The volunteers did an amazing job given the circumstances.

“We had a grand dream that didn’t quite work out the way we planned it.  DSA is now taking time to re-evaluate and reassess its future direction.”

We also spoke with Raphael ‘Trappy’ Pirker of Team BlackSheep, the company in charge of the ground stations and timing. In his words: “It seems the added load of an additional 100 pilots caused things to go a bit sideways at times. There were not enough people to run the second and third flight lines, or the wing racing. This is what caused most of the problems as people started to get confused. I believe that confusion added to video problems when three flight lines are plugging in at random times to fly.”

He continued: “I believe the underlying general confusion at the event with not enough staff on site is what majorly led to the frustrations, rather than the video problems. DSA had a very ambitious goal to get all these flight lines running with the little space that they had available. I think the move to close down one flight line and focus the efforts to only one track was a good decision to avoid pilots going home without any packs flown, but it also had severe consequences for the people running the timing, as we basically had to re-start and merge laptimes.”

As echoed by Trappy then, what seems to have been the underlying problem for many of the issues at the Worlds is a lack of organization as a result of not enough manpower. Simply, the scale of the event outgrew the organization. There were not enough volunteers or personnel at the event itself and this led to a breakdown in communications and the course being set up late.

Alex ‘IBCrazy’ Greve was involved with the wings part of the competition. He commented: “From my standpoint, the event was poorly organized and gave almost zero support to the wings.  Anthony Watton and I were left to set up our own track because they didn’t put any of it up. We set up the track with the help of Ken Kosierowski four times because they kept changing our flight borders on us.  I had to go to the event parties to recruit judges for the next race day.  A big thank you to those that showed up at 7:00 am because without them, we could never have done it.

“The area was particularly bad as the wind from the coast turned the mountains into a giant venturi chamber and thus made the track incredibly difficult to fly.  In the end, we got through it… but it wasn’t fun.”

Trey Player, Team Manager for AirVuz, also spoke to us about his commentary on the failures of the event. He said: “There was a lack of visible sponsors, a lack of vendors, both food and equipment and a lack of direction and leadership. All of this could have easily been avoided had the event been planned by proper event organizers.”

Of course DSA’s problems started long before the Hawaii event got underway. Chief Operating Officer Daniel Piko left the organization in the weeks before the Worlds began and sponsors reportedly scaled back their financial commitments post-Nationals.

IDRA Founder Justin Haggerty is another who has had prior ties with the DSA, previously known as RotorSports, and he told Third Law his story. Haggerty said: “To protect operations, the organization began using funds allocated for Drone Worlds to support Drone Nationals, which would still be under budget. The financial shortcomings before Drone Nationals uncovered other issues, both business and personal. It was clear that we needed to protect the sport and IDRA from being involved in the situation.

“IDRA had abandoned plans for the North America Cup and European Cup to support both Drone Nationals and Drone Worlds. It was a very difficult decision to terminate the merger with RotorSports. I knew that it would take us at least 6 months to rebound and revive our original strategy. Fortunately, we made the right decision. Drone Nationals was under budget and left a poor taste in pilots’ mouths. The community saw that RotorSports (DSA) didn’t have their best interests at heart.”

 He added: “Drone Worlds was a further confirmation. I’m glad to see that chapter closing behind IDRA.”

Complaints about the Drone Nationals were rife post event too, with many of these focused on the fact that the pilots were not catered for and that it was more of an event for the cameras and sponsors. It’s important to note of course that if those invested in the sport wish to see it grow in terms of awareness and the numbers taking part, see new elaborate tournaments established and potentially grow it into one wherein a significant number can race as a job not a hobby, then putting smiles on the faces of the sponsors is integral.

Whilst pilots are undoubtedly justified in expecting a certain level of organization and professionalism at such an event, it’s also wrong and rash to vilify Refsland for his enthusiasm for securing and pleasing sponsors.

Daniel Herbert, CEO of Skygear Solutions Inc., who was working alongside the DSA in a support role, said: “I believe the the anger from pilots IS justified but not to the degree it’s being taken and not for the reasons being given.

“The DSA should have had more staffing, should have had more preparation, should have had more pre-event testing.  They didn’t.  It doesn’t deserve the crucification being handed to them though.  People in this community completely fail to realize that the people that make up the DSA are trying to do GOOD things for them and for the sport of drone racing.”

Overall it seems that the Worlds was a case of a much too much, much too young. Drone racing in 2016 was not ready for an event of its magnitude but that is not to say its potential is any less. With so many countries represented that have not got the necessary infrastructures or drone racing ecosystems in place quite yet, this was destined to go south to some degree.

If used as a learning curve however then it’s something from which the sport as a whole could even, arguably, benefit. 

This HobbyKing video focusing on Shaun ‘Nytfury’ Taylor’s experience of the Worlds shows some of the highlights from the event. Taylor took first place in the individual quad competition, and has continued to have a good October in the DRL’s L.A.POCALYPSE.

One talking point, which has become the symbol of the pilots’ despair with the event, are the admittedly comical three portaloos set up for 190 pilots and their families. An image of them has since gained prominence as the cover snap for the RIPDroneSportsAssociation Facebook group created in the wake of the Worlds.

With over 400 members, a browse of the comments will tell you that this event will be tough for the DSA to recover from. Some of the drone racing community, which was willing to give it a second chance after the Nationals, has seemingly had enough.

A ‘Drone Worlds 2016 Fact Sheet’ is open for anyone to read on the group, and it lists the complaints attendees had with the way the event was run and went down.

The creator of the group was pilot Frederik Potgieter, and he told Third Law his main bone of contention. He said: “Group 1 were told that they have at least 18 lipos and six rounds to qualify but were then advised after only three lipos and one round that they would not get another chance and that those would be their qualifying times. Group 2 knew that they would only get 3 lipos/1 round to qualify. We were promised by Adam and Scot that groups 1 and 2 would get at least one more round to qualify but they made no efforts whatsoever to ensure that this happened.”

Expressing his serious distaste he added: “I won South African Nationals in April and have been working extremely hard to go to Hawaii and for me to get there and the event to be run like that… it’s atrocious.”

It cannot be denied that pilots have a right to feel both shortchanged and angry. In particular those that paid $599 for a VIP ticket will have rightly felt particularly disgruntled when there was no apparent advantage to their ‘VIP’ status. One such attendee, SkyDragonFPV, took to Youtube to broadcast his displeasure. He said: “Shame on you DSA. You’ve basically wasted my money and my time.”

On the VIP tickets topic Daniel Herbert stated: “The VIP tickets in NYC were probably close to worthwhile but not so in Hawaii.  I’m not certain what happened exactly – I don’t believe many were sold and I would assume that the DSA would refund all or partial values paid for the tickets.  So much effort was taken to get the event running properly that I believe the VIP area was left on the sideline unfortunately.  I don’t remember ever seeing more than about four people in that VIP area in Hawaii but I don’t know the actual numbers.”

It was a difficult event to follow for those not in Hawaii too. The Drone Worlds Twitter updates were few and far between. There was no official live feed with most wanting to know what was going on having to turn to feeds of unaffiliated attendees.

It’s safe to say the Drone Worlds won’t be returning to Hawaii next October. People took time off of work and spent good money to attend this event. Clearly, the DSA has a lot of making up to do but it should be allowed a chance to make amends. More than an opportunity to throw stones at the organisers what all this should see this as is a call to arms for pilots and those keen to see the sport develop, to unite and establish an organised and independent pilots union.

It could be that the answer already exists in the form of the Drone Pilots Federation, a new “non profit organization and neutral party to serve as a drone racing sanctioning body and as an educational and advocacy entity to assure the safe and responsible use of drones”. 

There is a need to regulate the sport as a whole, and bring all the leagues and tournament organisers, including the DSA, MultiGP, the DRL, Drone Champions League and IDRA to one discussion table. People are of course free to air their views online, and the odd joke can be excused but constant infighting does little to benefit the sport. Constructive criticism on the other hand, such as the form detailed by Potgieter, should be readily welcomed by all organisers. As Trey Parker stated: “The Facebook group is just an avenue of expression for those who attended the Worlds. Groups like these are created to bring the attention (both good and bad) to all involved in hopes of not repeating the same mistakes twice.”

The Worlds was a brave attempt to put drone racing on a bigger stage. It failed the pilots, but not the sport.

It’s time for those that want to see FPV grow to step up to the plate and ensure that the world championships in 2017, under whichever banner it’s raised, is a true testament to the sport and the work that goes into it. For that to happen, a united front is mandatory.


Note: We are not affiliated with any league, nor backed by any sponsor. We didn’t attend the Worlds ourselves but have spoken at length to some that did and those involved. The aim of this piece was to represent both sides of the fallout, and suggest a way for the sport to move on for the better. 


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