Drone World Championships: Drone racing in the land of Jurassic Park
The inaugural World Drone Racing Championships (aka Drone Worlds) is the culmination of over a year’s anticipation for a truly global, world-leading first-person-view drone racing competition, and expectations were high. The event was held on Kualoa Ranch in Hawaii on the island of O’ahu, the spectacular setting which has served as the famous backdrop for Jurassic Park and many other films. The epic volcanic cliffs, which encircle the race course, create a rather dramatic backdrop.
Entering the racers’ village, the international nature of the event is immediate; it’s reminiscent of an Olympic village, albeit on a much smaller budget. “The Worlds were designed to be very much like an Olympic style event,” says Scot Resfland, chairman of the Drone Sports Association, the umbrella organisers of the Drone Worlds.
Over 180 pilots, representing more than 30 countries made it here, highlight just how much FPV drone racing has grown globally since we first featured it back in mid-2015. As to be expected, the biggest national representation came from those closest to the site. USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Korea, and China all supplied numerous pilots, spotters, and support infrastructure, but more distant countries were represented, too. Denmark, Hungary, and Poland all manged to send pilots to compete, and France and Ukraine showcased sizeable squads. The UK, sadly, was under represented, with only one UK pilot present—Matthew Evans—despite Chi Lau, James Bowles, Brett Collis, Gary “Justice FPV” Kent, and current Drone Prix champion Luke Bannister all being eligible. However, there was no shortage of big names on board to entertain the crowds, including Shaun “Nytfury” Taylor, Minchan Kim, Brian “BrainDrain” Morris, and Mac Poschwald.
Competition began with the Aloha Cup—a paid entry competition which served as the final qualifier event for the Drone Worlds. This was followed by seeding events for the freestyle, individual, and wing competitions. There was also an international competition, pitting the USA, Canada, UK, New Zealand, Korea, Australia, and Russia against one another in a series of five point-scoring races. Ultimately the USA won with Korea taking second and team UK, or as they were known in the village, Team Brexit, managing a respectable third.
The final two days, Friday and Saturday, were set aside for the remaining pilots to battle it out for the top prizes in each category, and ultimately an individual Drone Worlds champion.
But it was the Drone Worlds individual challenge that captured the competitive heart of the FPV drone racing community. Racers were whittled down to 32, following a series of qualifying events. Shaun Taylor looked strong throughout qualifying, setting the fastest lap times, although Zachry “A_Nub” Thayer, Cain “MAD_AIR” Madere, and Brian Morris all flew consistently well.
Australian pilot Ross Kerker and Malta’s Mac Poschwald also emerged as early favourites, and there were many others looking like strong contenders. Thayer made the semi-finals, along with Morris and Poschwald. Madere came first in at least two of his races, entering the final as a firm favourite, likewise for Taylor. But not all fared so well. For Ross Kerker, a pro pilot, losing in this competition was not an option: “The last 12 months have been dedicated to this,” he says. “If I’m top 10 I’ve done good enough, if not I’ll have to reconsider my career.”
Sadly, luck wasn’t on his side. His first heat saw him retire early following a crash. He took first place in his second round, only to fail in the next. Leading from the front Kerker looked strong, despite facing stiff competition. However, on the final switchback Kerker was hit by a fellow pilot, taking both pilots out of the race. “I’m disappointed in the result, I’m not disappointed in my performance,” he says, “but I don’t have good luck, I’m unlucky at drone racing.”
The final race saw American pilots Shaun Taylor, Cain Medere, Paul “Bulbufet” Nurkkala, and Nick Willard fly alongside the Chinese pilot Kunhuang “Hailang” Li, Frenchman Couturier “SartoRius” Benoit, German pilot Niklas Solle, and Korean team member DongKi Han. The scene was set for an exciting final and many more spectators arrived to witness the action. Despite a fast start from all pilots, the first attempt at racing was cancelled after a crash at gate one and more mid-air collisions at gate three nullified the race. During a rather long pause while waiting for the race to be reset, perhaps to alleviate the pressure, Taylor and Madere entertained the crowed with a thumb wrestling competition—Shaun won—and Nurkkala hyped the fans by starting some Mexican waves.
Eventually the race was restarted. This time, all eight pilots got good, clean, fast starts, and tension started to mount. Taylor led from the front, getting away from potential challengers by putting down an incredibly fast 30-second first lap. Kunhauang Li responded with a 34-second lap and Nurkkala managed 36. Li crashed on the third lap, taking fourth position and so too did Benoit, who finished fifth. Neither Solle, Madere, nor DongKi Han completed the race, with Han never making it past the opening straight. They finished sixth, seventh and eighth, respectively. Meanwhile, Taylor increased his lead, albeit with diminishing lap times, and Nurkkala and Williard pushed hard enough to secure podium finishes.
Taylor took a well-deserved win, his consistent flying paying dividends. But, ever humble, he was quick to congratulate and thank the wider community and heap praise on fellow pilots. “I’m just blessed. I’m lucky. I won today, but tomorrow’s a brand new day, it’s all about the next race. I’m looking forward to someone else whooping me next week,” he says.
The event was, at various points, marred by poor communication, bad organisation, and technical issues, particularly regarding to timing. For many, this put a dampener on the whole experience. “I came here expecting a world-class event, which this is not,” says Kerker. And for the evolution of the sport to reach a global audience and meet high expectations, much more needs to be ironed out before a world-class event emerges. But, for a first attempt, in a rapidly changing and growing sport, it won’t be long before something bigger and better comes along.
In the meantime, the opportunity to fly with the very best of the current crop of pioneering pilots in such a new sport, and in such a wonderful location was plenty enough for most pilots.
Check out all of the pics here: http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2016/10/drone-world-racing-championships-hawaii-photos/