On a cool October night, after the stores in a suburban California shopping mall closed, six young drone racers gathered in a subterranean parking garage to hone their aviation skills. Using remote control joysticks, they navigated small X-shaped drones around pylons and beneath shopping carts, each vying for the lead.
The young men all work steady jobs, but racing drones, they said, has become a consuming passion.
"It's all I think about," said Richard Howarth. "I feel like we are at the beginning of something big."
The pilots are in the forefront of the nascent but growing sport of drone racing, which, in just over a year, has spiraled from scattered handfuls of hobbyists to a promising new competition. Race organizers are hailing the potential for televised races and significant financial purses.
"We see this as the future," said Charles Zablan, chief operating officer of the International Drone Racing Association, a league of more than 500 members, based in Los Angeles, that was created in April. "This can be just like the X Games, motocross racing and Red Bull air racing."
Perhaps, but at the moment, drone racing remains in its formative stages. Among the hurdles, Zablan said: Competition rules are still being figured out; the spectator experience is flawed; and no one knows quite how the sport will be managed.
"We are at the pioneering stage," Zablan said. "We don't even know what this is yet or what it could be, but we know it's fun and cool."
What the sport needs most at this stage is money, and in the last few months it has started to flow. In August, another organization, the Drone Racing League, announced a $1 million investment from the Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross through his investment arm. The group's CEO, Nicholas Horbaczewski, said its first major event would be in early 2016.
In July, the U.S. national drone racing championships, an event organized by the company RotorSports, were held at the California State Fair and included a $25,000 purse. Next year, the company said, it will organize a world championship in Hawaii, with a purse of $100,000.
In Los Angeles, which some call the mecca of drone racing, the International Drone Racing Association held its first championship Saturday. Called the California Cup, the event lured several hundred spectators.
Pilots navigate the drones using a remote with two joysticks that control altitude, speed and direction. They wear large goggles that broadcast live standard-definition video from a camera mounted on the front of the drone. It is this first-person view (FPV) that has given the sport a major boost, creating the opportunity for pilots to feel as if they are in the drone. The experience, they said, is similar to the Podracing scenes from Star Wars.
The drones are little more than small platforms for motors, a battery, electronic circuitry and four to six propellers. Most are of the four-motor variety and thus better known as quadcopters, or quads. "Three years ago, this technology was so expensive, so unattainable," Zablan said. Now, he said, a racing kit with FPV goggles can be purchased for about $1,000.
Which gets to one of the issues that could affect drone racing's ultimate success as a spectator sport. Drones can fly at speeds up to 70 mph, making them very hard for spectators without FPV goggles to see. Even when they fly slower and are performing maneuvers just a few feet above the ground, discerning exactly what they are doing can be difficult. "It's like watching two hummingbirds zip around the yard," said racer Keith Robertson.
This is a reason why the future may be online. Many of the racers record their drone's acrobatics using an additional camera like a GoPro, creating video that can be downloaded later.
"The biggest accelerator of this sport has been Instagram and YouTube," said Zablan.
In fact, the popularity of online drone video has minted celebrities. Some videos of Carlos Puertolas, a pilot known as "Charpu," have over 1 million views. In one, Puertolas' drone flies through open windows and down corridors of an abandoned hospital in Spain. He flies through tight spaces seemingly impossible to navigate.
"Charpu is as close to a god in FPV, I think, as you can get," said Robertson. "Charpu is the one who started it all. ... I think his videos really inspired a lot of people to get into this hobby."