The Trippy, High-Speed World of Drone Racing
In a canyon in the Rocky Mountain Front above Fort Collins, Colorado, a young man named Jordan Temkin is flying his drone. He wears goggles that show him a video feed from a camera built into the drone, and he holds a console with twin joysticks that control the direction, angle, pitch, yaw, and speed of the flight. He sets the drone on the gravel at his feet. Just downhill is the Cache la Poudre River. The canyon rises to maybe three hundred feet above. He gives a command and the drone leaps to the top of the canyon in an instant. Then it is soaring over the highest places, looking down on Temkin, a small figure sitting on the tailgate of his car. At eighty miles an hour, the shadow of the drone flashes across the face of the rocks. Then Temkin swoops it down to the surface of the river, where it zips a few feet above the water. Because of where the sun is, the river is a blast of silver light. Temkin takes the drone upward again and veers into an intersecting canyon.
The limit on the battery that powers the drone is about three minutes. Before time’s up, Temkin lands the drone near him, where its arrival on the gravel makes the kind of plastic clatter associated with dropped toys. In fact, the drone looks like a toy. Temkin calls it a quadcopter. It has four plastic propellers, one at each corner of a cruciform plastic frame. “Quad” is the commonly used name for drones like this. The entire device could fit in a single-serving pizza box. An immeasurable amount of scientific and technological progress, like a huge invisible inverted pyramid, converges on this small, toylike point.
At twenty-six years old, Temkin still has the sweet, serene manner of a not-spoiled kid whose parents adore him. He is six feet tall, dark-haired, part Asian; he wears black jeans, a black T-shirt with a small silver logo on it that says “DRL,” a dark-blue zip-up hoodie (usually unzipped), and white-and-yellow running shoes. When people ask him what he does for a living, he says he races toy helicopters. He has found this to be an effective shorthand description for a brand-new calling. Temkin is a professional drone-racing pilot, one of the top earners in the sport. Flying in the mountains as much as he can is how he practices.
The World of Competitive Drone Racing Watch professional pilots guide their aircraft around mountains and through obstacle-ridden warehouses at up to eighty miles per hour.
Often Temkin flies with Zachry Thayer, a Fort Collins roommate, who’s a fellow professional drone racer. Thayer is stockier than Temkin, with wizardly blue eyes and a large Hammurabi beard. Both are West Coast kids, Temkin from Seattle and Thayer from Laguna Niguel, California, in Orange County. The two met when they competed in a drone race in Sacramento in 2015. Temkin, a graduate of the University of Colorado with an art degree, was looking for a roommate, and they decided to share a house. Online, Temkin had connected with other people in the area who liked to fly drones, and the collection of local drone guys who eventually got together called their group Big Whoop, because at that time, as pilots, they were the opposite of impressive. The current success of Temkin and Thayer has put a shine on that name. When Temkin races, his moniker is jet, from his initials. Thayer races as A_Nub, pronounced “a noob,” which originally meant a newbie, something Thayer no longer is. He kept the name because that’s how drone-racing fans first knew him.
“When we started flying, we could hardly do anything,” Temkin told me in Fort Collins last fall. “I built my first drone from a frame pattern I found online and printed out on my 3-D printer. I ordered parts for it and put it together and just started flying. I loved it, but I crashed all the time. Today, we can do moves we couldn’t have even thought of two years ago. That’s partly because the technology kept getting better and partly because our skills improved.”
Jordan and Zach (to switch to first names, which seems somehow more fitting for them) often fly with their friend and third roommate, Travis McIntyre, a skinny, widely smiling fellow with a degree in philosophy. Both Zach and Jordan describe themselves as super-competitive, but Travis flies mostly for enjoyment, and is more interested in the R. & D. side. He seldom races professionally. His contribution seems to be having the kind of lighthearted fun that can mingle with dead-serious intensity. Big Whoop’s fooling around with drones has no slacker component. If a drone crashes in the mountains, they go and get it. Once that involved them and a few experienced rock-climber friends in an ascent with ropes. When they crashed a drone in the Cache la Poudre River, they rented wetsuits and dived for it. They say they have lost only one drone.
The world of airborne drones divides into two categories. Most people think first of military drones. The Predator and Reaper drones that fire missiles and perform surveillance are unmanned prop airplanes powered by combustion engines. Their deadliness adds the sinister sound to the word “drone.” Quadcopters, the most common kind of civilian drone, use electric motors powered by batteries. They usually have four propellers, but variations can have six or eight or more; people even build fifty-propeller drones. All drones are guided by radio signals. Many military drones receive ground-based signals by way of satellite. Other drones operate from signals that originate at a control console within the line of sight of the drone.
People who fly drones for recreation or other peaceful purposes generally buy them ready-made, off the shelf or online. Some of these drones can be as big as end tables. With most commercially available drones, pilot vision is by direct observation, in the same way that you guide remote-control toy cars or model airplanes. Drones that are guided by a pilot looking through the view of an onboard camera, using goggles—a system that allows for much greater accuracy of maneuvering—belong to a subcategory called F.P.V., which stands for “first-person view.” Drone racing as it has evolved would not be possible without F.P.V.
Quadcopters exist in their current, ever-increasing numbers because of smartphones. For the display image on a smartphone to remain upright, the phone has to know which direction is up, and its orientation in terms of vertical and horizontal. An instrument called an accelerometer, which measures change in speed in relation to Earth’s gravity, performs the first function, a gyroscope the second. Both of these have been refined and miniaturized into a single tiny component that figured prominently in the development of motion-sensing video-game controllers. Smartphones popularized the technology, and their ubiquity has made it possible for the accelerometer-gyroscope components to be produced in numbers that make them cheap enough to be used in quadcopters.
The accelerometer-gyroscope keeps the quadcopter balanced. Now imagine it hovering, propellers rotating parallel to the ground. A quad lacks rudders and flaps to control its flight; instead, it maneuvers by adjusting the speed and sometimes the angle of its propellers. The information that tells the propellers’ motors how and when to change their spin arrives through radio signals, which onboard hardware translates into computer code. Jordan, Zach, Travis, and the other Big Whoop pilots build most of the drones they fly. Drone-stabilization code can be downloaded from open-source software available online, but Zach has also experimented with writing his own code. Jordan, working from his arts background, has become proficient at soldering the tiny circuits in the flight controller.
The F.P.V. camera feed to the pilot’s goggles is an analog system. Its picture lacks the sharpness of digital. The analog feed arrives in real time, however, while a digital camera’s feed lags as much as a hundred milliseconds behind it—a minuscule difference, but enough to mess up high-speed piloting. Onboard digital cameras serve mainly for making videos. These cameras are called GoPros, after the most common brand, and the videos they record peel back your eyeballs.
If you want to know what it’s like to fly at eighty miles per hour through abandoned steel mills, hospitals, shopping malls, warehouses, and similar places, a wide selection of GoPro videos on YouTube awaits you. Some drone videos fly you down forest trails, or take you at seagull level over ocean waves, or give an eagle’s-eye sweep of mountain canyons (Big Whoop’s specialty). Jordan says he can look at a video and tell who the pilot is, because each has a distinctive style. Thousands of fans follow Jordan’s and Zach’s flight videos online.
I saw my first quadcopter about four years ago while walking down Fifth Avenue. It resembled one of those trays which fit over your lap when you have breakfast in bed, only with propellers. A young man was carrying it, and I felt a brief urge to follow him. A year or two after that, I found a small drone in a tree in a park near my house in New Jersey. It was made of white plastic, circular, about six inches across, and it had no camera—a beginner’s drone. I examined it in wonder, as if I were Stone Age Man. Its four propellers appeared undamaged. It did not seem to have crashed into the tree. Instead, someone probably placed it there at eye level so that whoever had lost it might find it. I regarded it as a good omen and put it back.
The growing upsurge in drone popularity went through an early period when everybody who tried to fly F.P.V. drones kept crashing. Model-aircraft shows featured drone-demonstration areas set off by floor-to-ceiling netting, like the kind you see at some golf ranges, where pilots could fool with their quads. At an Academy of Model Aeronautics Expo in an exhibition hall at the Meadowlands, the plastic rattling sounds of drones falling to the floor indicated the drone area. Most of the demonstrations consisted of short flights, sudden crashes, and guys huddling in groups to assess the damage.
At Liberty Science Center, in Jersey City, I attended a Day of Drones one Sunday in early March, 2016, and had to cruise the lot for a long while to find a parking space. Kids of many ages and ethnicities packed the exhibitions of drone battles (not much contact, but plenty of crashes), drone races (more crashes, but some actual racing, on a course set up on the museum grounds), and, in the imax theatre, the winning movies from the New York City Drone Film Festival. Kids in high excitement swarmed all over, some of them carrying their own drones. The racers, many of them guys in their twenties from a group called FPV Addiction, had clusters of younger children watching transfixed as parents waited patiently nearby.
I first saw Jordan and Zach race on August 7, 2016, at an event billed as the U.S. National Drone Racing Championships, put on by the Drone Sports Association. At that time I knew only their racing names. The Drone Sports Association, or D.S.A., seemed to exist mainly online; its publicity said that a number of tryouts around the country had produced the group of thirty or so top pilots who would compete that day. The racecourse, marked with plastic hoops, gates, and feather flags, was on a crabgrass field on Governors Island, in New York Harbor. According to the event’s announcer, Wilbur Wright took off from this very field in 1909 on his famous flight around the Statue of Liberty and up the Hudson River. Today would be just as historic, the announcer said.
Spectators filled the bleachers that had been set up at the finish line, sponsors’ banners decked the racecourse and the platform where the pilots sat, drone-related commercial booths lined one side of the venue, and big split-screen monitors showed what the drones were seeing as they raced. There was a V.I.P. tent, mostly unoccupied. At one point, Dr. Scot Refsland, the founder of the D.S.A., made a speech celebrating the day’s first-ever broadcast of a drone race by ESPN, the sports network, and proclaimed drone racing “the new Nascar.”
But the event was kind of a catastrophe; the bugs had not been worked out. Unlike the Wright brothers, who solved their tech challenges privately in an Ohio cow pasture, the D.S.A. race organizers seemed to be dealing with certain basic problems for the first time here. Mainly, the Wi-Fi connections of the spectators’ iPhones crowded the narrow radio-frequency bandwidth needed for pilots to communicate with their drones. Establishing open channels and maintaining them proved dicey. With more interference, fewer pilots could compete in each heat, so there had to be more heats, and each took a lot of fussing around before it started. The split-screen videos kept getting snowy and blanking out. The announcer kept saying, “If you have 5.8 Wi-Fi please turn it off . . . we’re having issues with the RF channel . . . please turn off your personal Wi-Fi and hot spots . . . do the judges have video yet? . . . When we really start it will be so awesome! Please, everybody, turn off your Wi-Fi.”
Drones were crashing and going astray. Jordan’s flew into the superstructure above the finish line and stuck there, and he had to climb up to retrieve it. For the qualifying rounds, the day before, Zach had arrived half asleep after travelling all night from Orange County, where he had been best man in a wedding. In his sleep-deprived state he transcended the surroundings and solaced himself with flying. During his heats in the finals, he sat on the pilots’ platform moving back and forth to the vision in his goggles, and he ended up winning the ten-thousand-dollar first prize, along with the two-thousand-dollar prize in the freestyle competition. But by the end of the day many of the spectators had wandered away, not quite sure what they had seen. The Drone Sports Association now appears to be dormant or defunct.
When I visited Jordan, Zach, and Travis in Fort Collins, they were living in a ranch house in a development of similar houses not far from open prairie. I arrived at about 11 a.m., so as not to find them still asleep. Zach was supposed to be there but at the last minute had decided to attend a drone race in Seoul, where he would appear as a drone-racing celebrity but not as a competitor. Jordan asked me to remove my shoes. I was amazed to find their domestic arrangements so orderly, and not like the chaos I inhabited when I was twenty-six.
An eight-foot-long shelf of trophies dominated the living room—trophies from races in Phoenix, Detroit, Orlando, Louisville, and Dubai, among other venues. Some of the awards stood four feet high and resembled Brancusi sculptures. The real center of the house was the basement, where I was led first. In America there are tens of millions of basements like this, with the same short-pile wall-to-wall carpeting, cinder-block walls, high windows in window wells, exposed ducts and pipes overhead, water heater in the corner, and pervasive sense of away-from-the-family refuge. This particular basement also rocked with a hum of invention and ambition that the Wright brothers might have recognized. On the walls, instead of the usual band posters and imitation stolen street signs, hung several of those large prop checks which are given to prize-winners in news photographs. A few bore the logos of racing events and sums in the mid four figures.
Floor-to-ceiling modular shelves teetered here and there, stuffed with quads that had been pirated for parts. “Most of these are our red-headed-stepchildren quads that somehow didn’t work the way we wanted,” Jordan said. “This quad frame here was my very first drone, that I printed on my 3-D printer. You can see the little lines where the printer laid on each layer. All those fifteen or twenty milk crates along the wall contain propellers. We go through propellers by the thousands. That one crate is full of bags of propellers made by the propeller company that’s one of our sponsors.” He picked out a package and showed me his and Zach’s smiling head shots in red and blue balloons, like something on an old-time cereal box.
Soldering equipment, extension cords, boxes upon boxes of batteries in various states of freshness, quad motors, control consoles, F.P.V. goggles with the name Fat Shark (the main goggle manufacturer) prominently displayed, quads of many sizes—down to the pocket-size minis that the pilots use to make insect-eye-view videos of their living room and kitchen, flying the little drones between chair legs and couch sections and around the peanut-butter jar on the counter—such a profusion of gear gave the basement a sorcerer’s-workshop richness. Off to one side stood a multitiered racing trophy that seemed out of place.
“Oh, that,” Travis said, when I asked. “One night, we were sitting around and talking, and we looked at that trophy, and we wondered if we could fly it. So we put motors and propellers on it, and the next day we tried it, and it flew pretty well, for a fairly heavy three-foot-high racing trophy.”
Flying their drones every day constitutes the core of their schedule, so, after lunch at a sandwich shop in Fort Collins (wooden tables, deluxe combos, artisanal sodas), Jordan and Travis drove us in Jordan’s new Subaru WRX hatchback into the Roosevelt National Forest and up the Cache la Poudre Canyon. The river, known as the Pooder, is one of the better trout-fishing streams in the state, and it provides angling access along the road every quarter mile or so. They stopped at a narrow pullout against the canyon wall, took out their equipment, goggled up, and sent the drones skyward. The rock formations in the canyon resembled books slumped this way and that on a shelf, with an occasional pillar standing out like a book’s denuded spine. The drones glided along the vertical rocks almost caressingly and wound among the scrubby junipers growing just downslope, as the motors made a high-pitched, sewing-machine sound.
Extra goggles had been brought so that I could watch along with the pilot. I found it impossible to do that without sitting on the tailgate and holding tightly to the car. At each swoop and plunge, the F.P.V. view causes the uninitiated brain to think it’s about to die. After a few minutes, I took the goggles off, with relief. Watching the drones again without them, I noticed the canyon rocks’ black, cubistic shadow patterns for the first time. While Jordan flew, Travis told me about the passing flock of geese he tried to join with his drone, and about seeing a bear suddenly pop up in his F.P.V. He brought the drone back for a second look; the bear did not seem bothered.
Jordan’s drone hit a juniper branch and crashed. Putting his goggles aside, he sprang up the steep slope and retrieved drone, battery, and GoPro camera. A crash that scatters parts is called a yard sale, a term that is also used to describe a gear-strewing fall in skiing. Jordan skis and used to do ski acrobatics, but gave that up in his late teens after an accident in which he smashed his knee into his head and had to recuperate in bed for a month. Like a number of other drone racers, he has replaced a high-adrenaline physical sport with one in which you crash only vicariously.
Zach turned up the next morning, having flown all night from South Korea. Apparently, jet lag had never caught up with him in either direction. He sat on the couch in their living room wearing a T-shirt and a pair of baggy black trousers with white rows of starship troopers on them, and praised the South Korean government, which encourages development of drone technologies. It has built a public drone park on the outskirts of Seoul, holds regular drone races that thousands attend, and offers drone instruction as part of stem programs in the schools. “Friendly people, supergood food, fun night life in Seoul’s Times Square, lots of drone-racing fans—South Korea is one of the best countries in the world for drones,” he said.
“Internationally, the South Koreans are the best racing pilots, on average. They would be the ones I’m most afraid of,” Jordan added.
I particularly wanted to ask Zach about an online video I’d seen of a race between a drone and an electric car. He had been the pilot of the drone.
“Yeah, that was amazing,” he said, laughing. “It happened last summer at a two-day event of Formula E races on a track in Red Hook, Brooklyn. As a special feature on the last day, we raced against an e-car with a drone we’d built ourselves. The drone was about three feet square and weighed forty pounds, and it made a terrifying roar—you could feel it ripping the air. It went over a hundred and ten miles an hour. Drones don’t need time to accelerate because they’re at top speed almost instantly. At the start I left the e-car so far behind, it looked like it wasn’t even moving. The drone was going great, but then it started to yaw—there wasn’t enough room to bleed off speed. It overwhelmed the system, which wasn’t designed for a drone that large. I was afraid I couldn’t land it safely, so I let it climb almost straight up and then flew it straight down at the track. It crashed into about a million pieces and got the biggest cheer of the weekend.”
Zach and Jordan have a lot of freedom to travel because they are paid by a company called DRL, which stands for Drone Racing League. The annual champion receives a six-figure contract; the others receive less. More than a dozen young drone pilots are in DRL’s employ. DRL is not a league in the sense that any other organizations belong to it. It produces TV shows of its drone races, licenses the shows to ESPN and similar networks in seventy-five countries, and has attracted about fifty million viewers.
DRL also handles the tech side of all its races. Pilots use the company’s own drones, which are made identical to remove the possibility of advantage. DRL engineers construct all the racecourses and provide the radio-guidance technology. The company’s innovations in that area allow the drones to fly out of the line of sight; usually, if an obstacle like a wall intervenes between the drone and the source of the radio signal, the connection is interrupted and the drone drops from the air. On DRL racecourses, the drones are able to fly into adjoining areas out of the pilot’s sight, and then return and continue in the main ring, where the spectators sit behind protective netting. DRL has also solved the problem of RF interference from the spectators’ devices, the bugbear of the races I saw on Governors Island. How DRL’s engineers accomplished these feats is proprietary.
During the early part of the year, the DRL pilots compete in company-sponsored events around the country and sometimes abroad. The top finishers move up to quarter-finals and semis. The ones who emerge from these contests or qualify for other reasons then appear in the championship event, a smoothly produced TV show that’s also a real race. In the 2016 championship, held in a former metal-stamping factory in Detroit, Jordan came in first, and in 2017 he defended his title at the Alexandra Palace, a cavernous Victorian-era exhibition hall in London.
The race took place in June, and ESPN broadcast it six weeks later. Like most sports on TV, the DRL championship combined an actual sporting event with entertainment, but the level of pilot skill was stratospheric, impossible to fake. A pair of announcers in short-sleeved shirts said the usual sports-announcer things, and a young blond woman did on-field interviews between heats. The final six competing pilots were Jordan/jet, in the red drone; Zach/A_Nub, in the white; Gab707, from Montreal, in the yellow; Wild Willy, from Atlanta, in the pink; Dunkan, from France, in the green; and FPVProvo, from Utah, in the blue. FPVProvo was thirty-nine, the oldest of the six pilots by some years. Each drone carried about ninety L.E.D. lights in the pilot’s color so you could easily tell whose was whose. The event consisted of seven successive heats; the first-place finisher in each heat got ten points, and those in second through sixth got fewer. The one with the most points after heat No. 7 won.
Each obstacle and gate on the racecourse shone with lights outlining it. In the dim interior of the Alexandra Palace, as spotlight beams played all around, the racecourse shimmered psychedelically. A series of three gates at different points on a vertical loop up to the central hall’s high, vaulted ceiling required that the pilots flip their drones backward through them and emerge upright at the bottom—a dauntingly complicated move—before the final sprint to the finish line, at which they crashed into a restraining net.
With the pilots’ colors fixed in your mind, you could follow how each one was doing in each heat; after leaping from its own little dais at the starting line, each drone left an eighty-mile-an-hour trail of color. Jordan/jet won the first heat, and Gab707 won the second. Biographical vignettes, like those in the Olympics, showed Jordan eating sushi with his beaming parents in their house in Seattle, and Gab707, a thin-faced young man with a ponytail and a Canadian accent, standing on a snowy North Woods hilltop and talking about his easy, no-sharp-turns flying style. In the third heat, Gab707 hit a gate and “crashed out”; Jordan did the same in the fourth heat. He won the fifth, but crashed again in the sixth, bouncing his drone off the floor after coming out of the backward loop and then hitting a gate. Meanwhile, the four other pilots fought for third place. Zach/A_Nub placed second in two heats, but got into midair collisions and crashed three times. He was looking frustrated and furious when he removed his goggles between heats.
In the last, and decisive, heat, Gab707 led most of the way. Then Jordan/jet moved near him at the front of the pack as the six approached the backward loop. Gab707 went through the loop ahead, but Jordan flew a tighter turn coming out of the third gate, edged past him before the final sprint, and crossed the finish line almost a half second in front. He pulled off his goggles in a daze, unsure whether he had won. Then he found out that he had and thrust his arms into the air. Over all, Gab707 finished second, and Wild Willy third. The entire contest—including commercials for Allianz Insurance, Swatch watches, Nikko Air (a brand of quad), and Forto Coffee, among others—filled an hour of TV.
Nicholas Horbaczewski, DRL’s thirtysomething C.E.O., resembles the star of a nineteen-fifties Western, with long sideburns and swept-back chestnut hair. He founded DRL in 2015 and later established the company’s headquarters on West Twenty-seventh Street in Manhattan. Investors liked his drone-racing TV-show concept, and he eventually raised tens of millions of dollars. To handle the tech challenges, he acquired a company run by Ryan Gury, now his chief employee. Gury is a lean young designer with glasses and rolled-up sleeves who also has a fifties look, as if teleported from the early days of nasa.
I stopped by their offices after I came back from Colorado. When you get off the elevator at DRL’s floor, the large and hard-to-identify object on your right is part of a crashed alien spacecraft that figured in the set of a previous race. The work area occupies a spacious, high-ceilinged studio with desk stations along the walls and plastic bins and crates full of items similar to those I saw in the guys’ basement in Fort Collins. On worktables were examples of drones that DRL uses in its races—bigger drones than the homemade quads I’d examined, with a more insectoid appearance, a more grasshopper-like profile. DRL employs about two dozen people in New York and in Santa Cruz, California. Everyone I saw appeared to be under forty.
Horbaczewski and Gury described how they build their drones, lay out and construct their racecourses (which they call lines), and scout for pilots. At the moment, there are about fifty top drone racers in the world, they said. Would-be pro racers can download a race simulator and try to fly a pro-level time on it. The best among them compete at an e-sports event, and the winner gets a seventy-five-thousand-dollar contract. The company also reviews GoPro flight videos that pilots send in. Online participation provides a constant international influx of potential new stars.
“The early drone-racing leagues did not understand the presentation problem,” Horbaczewski said. “Drone racing is not the new Nascar. You’re not adapting a sport that already exists and inserting drones into it. This is a sport that’s coming from the future. In cyberspace and in movies, people started watching this type of futuristic sport a long time ago.”
“The audience that comes to drone racing is thinking in terms of video games and classic SFX sci-fi races,” Gury said. “They’re thinking of the pod race in ‘Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.’ They’re thinking of the speeder-bike chase through the Endor forest in ‘Return of the Jedi.’ ”
“When you create a drone race, you are going head to head with sci-fi,” Horbaczewski said.
“Until DRL became involved, kids were showing up at drone races and saying, ‘This is not the “Star Wars” I was promised,’ ” Gury said.
“I came to this sport from being the chief revenue officer at Tough Mudder obstacle races,” Horbaczewski said. “So I had experience growing a new sport. But if I’d known all the tech advances that we would have to create ourselves, I never would have got involved.”
“He shouldn’t have thrown that snowball before firing.”
“The first time we laid out a smoothly working line that was also complicated and really interesting was in the Miami Dolphins’ stadium, for a race in our 2016 season,” Gury said. “We had drones racing through the stands, and then going under them, down tunnels and concourses inside the stadium. We looked at each other and said, ‘No one has ever done this before.’ ”
“Ryan is the da Vinci of drones,” Horbaczewski said. “And in the process we’ve hit on a bunch of patentable new technologies, just the way that the Le Mans auto race popularized disk brakes.”
“The job is pure fun, too,” Gury said. “Last summer, to show it could be done, we set the Guinness World Record for the fastest ground speed by a remote-controlled, battery-powered quadcopter. This was in Cunningham Park, in Queens. The Guinness people are very scrupulous, and they showed up and checked everything out and brought their own speed-measurement expert. We’d built a new quad specially to deal with problems we had before, when the quad couldn’t handle the energy and burst into flames. This time it worked perfectly. It went up and back on a hundred-metre course so fast you almost didn’t see it, and attained an average top speed of 163.5 miles per hour. At its fastest, it reached almost one-eighty.”
“It was like that moment in the first ‘Star Wars’ when the star cruiser jumps to light speed,” Horbaczewski said. “That’s what we’re trying to do—translate sci-fi effects into real life, and create ridiculously high-level, high-performance flying robots to show the world.”
Last year, a drone crashed through the window of the Kate Spade store at the corner of Mercer Street and Broome Street, in SoHo. The incident occurred on the Fourth of July at about eight-thirty in the evening. The N.Y.P.D. did not find out who did it, and the employees of the store, which sells luxury handbags, refused to speculate. I had never seen a drone-crash news story before, but others soon followed. In September, a drone piloted by someone too far away to see it crashed into an Army Black Hawk helicopter flying a security patrol over the water off Staten Island. The helicopter landed safely, and the National Transportation Safety Board held its first investigation of a midair collision involving a drone. In October, a drone hit the wing of a Skyjet passenger plane coming in to land at Jean Lesage International Airport, near Quebec City—the first confirmed collision between a commercial aircraft and a drone in North America. No serious damage, no injuries, and no suspects.
The Federal Aviation Administration has required that all pilots of drones that weigh between .55 and fifty-five pounds be registered with the agency. In practice, this is often not done. If a drone has an accident resulting in property damage, F.A.A. rules say that the pilot must report the incident; that, too, is often disregarded. Drone crashes leave few clues because a drone without a pilot registration number on it is difficult to trace. Reports of drones flying above crowds, or within five miles of airports, or near houses, or above four hundred feet are not uncommon, though all those acts are against F.A.A. regulations. Sales of drones for recreational and business use go up every year. The F.A.A. predicts that by 2020 seven million drones will be sold annually—4.3 million for recreational flying and 2.7 million for business.
Farmers survey their fields with drones and keep track of how crops and water look in hard-to-get-to sections. Roofers examine rooftops, maintenance workers inspect power lines and cell-phone towers, and real-estate agents make flattering aerial videos of their properties with drones. Drones do a lot of filming for TV and movies. In 2017, for the first time ever, the fire departments of both New York City and Los Angeles used drones to help in fighting fires. Three hundred drones flew in synch during Lady Gaga’s halftime performance at the 2017 Super Bowl. In a state park in western New York, a drone helped rescue a dog that had fallen into a gorge. A drone hunted down escapees from a juvenile prison in Louisiana. Police arrested a couple in California and accused them of delivering drugs by drone. A doughnut shop in Denver delivered doughnuts by drone. In March, 2017, Amazon made its first package delivery in the U.S. using its new drone system, Prime Air.
At key moments in American history, pilots have been among the coolest people. For about twenty years, Mississippi steamboat pilots carried a cachet, with their expertise about how to navigate the ever-changing river. The ranks of river pilots produced our greatest writer. During the Cold War, fighter-jet pilots who became astronauts defined a high level of cool. Nicholas Horbaczewski has described the top-level drone racers as “the best flavor of nerd.” Maybe drone pilots will represent those historically cool types morphed into the future. Already, because of budget cuts, government-trained military pilots with experience of actual in-air flying are fewer, and commercial airlines have a smaller pool of pilots to draw on. Maybe someday we’ll all be flying in commercial airplanes directed by calm, professional, reassuring pilots who are sitting on the ground.
The future will produce more jobs requiring an ability to fly drones. Zach and Jordan have friends who fly drones for avocado ranchers and movie crews and search-and-rescue squads. Millions of kids are already honing the necessary skills just by playing video games. Kids purely love to fly drones. A lot of people in this country are looking for fun and satisfying ways to make a living. Why not teach kids how to fly F.P.V. well and safely, in school or other programs? We should follow South Korea’s example. It makes sense to get ready, because in the future there are going to be a whole lot of drones flying around.
The lighted screen always seemed to me to have no inner boundary. You could disappear into it forever and have no reason to come out. I thought this was too bad, because I am an admirer of reality and hated for it to be set aside. I felt for the kids lost in their screens, because it seemed they never played outdoors. It did not occur to me that the unreality of the lighted screen could lead us back into the actual world, but that is the case with drones. It’s fun to play at commanding a genie in a fantasy, but flying a drone offers at least a sketch of what it might be like to have a genie’s reach in real life. With widely available drones, we’ve arrived at a moment in which, for a change, reality can offer a more powerful appeal.
As I was coming back from the afternoon of flying with Jordan and Travis in the Cache la Poudre Canyon, the sun declined to the west and infused the wraparound landscape of mountains and prairie with a reddish western light. Jordan surveyed the scene through his windshield. “Flying my quad makes me part of this,” he said, gesturing. We pulled up to an intersection. “Even that stoplight,” he continued, as we waited for it to change. “I mean, think of what it would be like to fly a quad around the stoplight, to look at it up close from every angle, including from above. My original dream was to be an artist with a focus on photography, and I’m kind of fulfilling it in a way I didn’t expect. With my quad, I’m seeing things no one has ever seen.” ♦