Drones are the leading weapons of the new age of impersonal warfare. They have been touted as being more efficient, accurate and cheaper than using foot soldiers, with the cost of human lives decreasing dramatically when a pilot can kill his target from behind a computer screen thousands of miles away. As such, they have been labeled “the most humane form of warfare ever.”
From up close, though, that gloss of humanity looks like a sham. In October 2013, a Pakistani teenager, Zubair, testified before Congress about the consequences of drone strikes. He and his sister had been wounded by a drone the previous year, with the precision strike also killing their grandmother.
“I no longer love blue skies,” said Zubair. “In fact, I now prefer grey skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are grey. When [the] sky brightens, drones return and we live in fear.”
For a pilot like Conrad “Furadi” Miller, flying drones is a job. He’s in his chair, goggles strapped on. “When you put your goggles on, your eyes convince your brain that you’re not sitting in a chair anymore.” The goggles provide a video feed from a camera mounted on the drone so that the person sitting in the chair feels as if they’re in the cockpit. Because the brain can’t distinguish between what the body is experiencing in reality and what it’s seeing through the drone’s sensors, the pilots, for a moment, experience that most ancient human desire: to fly.
They’re transported into a seemingly infinite expanse, divorced from gravity, a world of boundless potential. Drone pilots become intoxicated with the peace that comes with being an insignificant speck within the clouds, free from the burdens and troubles of the world below. They float, fly, twirl with complete independence. The first few moments of piloting a drone provides an experience of true freedom.
“If I’m freestyling with a drone, it’s relaxing and I feel totally free,” said Furadi. “I can fly around trees, do whatever I want and just be creative. It’s very stress-relieving.”
Stress relief might not be what one associates with drone operation, but there’s an important catch: Furadi isn’t a military drone operator. He’s a professional drone racer.
On the days that they fly, four drone pilots sit inside a cavernous arena barraged by intense, strobing lights. They wait for permission to launch. When the signal arrives, they push up on the throttle of their controller — the left stick — to fire the drone’s propellers.
This begins a delicate challenge of touch and precision. Push too hard and the drone flies out of control, but too gentle and the pilot will find themselves playing catch up from the start. Seeing all four drones come to life in unison feels surreal. It’s like watching a swarm of dragonflies rise, luminous, into the smoke. They catch their bearings for a fleeting second, then swoop off towards their first target. Unlike their military counterparts, their goal is to score points, not kills.
The best drone pilots compete in the Drone Racing League.
Unlike the four other professional drone leagues — International Drone Racing Association, Drone Sports Association, Freedom Class, MultiGP — the DRL provides stock drones for its pilots. The use of stock drones ensures that one’s ability, and not discretionary income — enabling certain racers to buy more expensive and powerful parts — determines who wins and who loses. The replenishable stock of drones also opens up the opportunity to hold races in denser, more intricate and dangerous courses.
The CEO of the DRL, Nick Horbaczewski, hopes that his league becomes “the Formula One of drones.” In truth, he’s pushing for even more than that. Horbaczewski revealed that he wants drone racing to change the perception of drones in the public sphere. Horbaczewski is creating a world in which drones are associated with FPV goggles, roaring crowds, bright lights and double helixes — not war.
DRL venues include stadiums, abandoned malls, the Bell Works tech lab, and a supposedly abandoned UFO crash site. The courses are packed with twists, turns, double helixes, voms, sharp cuts and roundabouts. Imagination is the only limitation to what they might look like. The pilots have to be able to match the aggressiveness of the course design, a mindset that is only possible if the economic anxiety of crashing expensive drones is eliminated.
For Furadi, a former heavy truck mechanic in the Air Force, this is a perfect stage to test his abilities.
“What motivates me as a pilot, is pure competition,” he says. “I want to be the best at it.”
The DRL championships is a gathering of the best pilots available, with each coming to prove that he or she is the best drone racer alive. This is, first and foremost, a competition for superiority and self-validation. The $75,000 prize pool helps, too.
Each event has six races in total with three heats each. Three races for the qualifying rounds, two for the semifinal and then one final race. The qualifying rounds start with 12 pilots. The semifinals cut four from the original racers, and the final is down to the final four survivors. The pilots with the best times overall from each heat in the first two races advance. Only four can fly at once. Points are awarded for each checkpoint that’s passed successfully, finishing the race in the allotted time. Crashing into or missing a checkpoint disqualifies a pilot. The drones are replaced at the end of each race and the person with the most points at the end wins.
Drone racing is disconcertingly non-linear. Courses are packed full of so many twists and turns that watching a race on television can be nauseating. In the ‘Miami Lights’ event held in Sun Life Stadium, the drones are placed inside the second level of the bowl, with the pilots sitting in a makeshift room above the drones. Once the race starts, the drones fly counter-clockwise around the bowl. They’re huddled together and cautious until the first gate, but break formation the instant they zip through, with each drone accelerating hard and probing for the angle that will get them ahead of the pack. After the first four checkpoints, the drones fly out toward the center of the stadium before a sharp turn takes them into a neon-lit tunnel in the lower bowl.
Inside the tunnel, a string of blue lights has the drones zig-zagging around columns, walls, trash and leftover planks. After dancing past the obstacles, the lights lead them left again, buzzing through another neon green tunnel and back out to the bowl. Furadi, known as an adept technical racer, and widely viewed as a favorite among what is considered the best crop of drone racers, is most at home here. As they exit that concrete jungle, they’re immediately asked to do another about-face to fly into the vomitory underneath. A small hallway then throws the drones into a deadly helix.
Inside, they follow the spiral, attempting to maintain a constant speed and angle while increasing altitude. The helix’s slow, seemingly endless curve can be mesmerizing, and it’s a challenge for pilots to adjust course in time when it suddenly ends and they have escaped into another green tunnel on their right. Back in the bowl, four more neon targets await, and then it’s an all-out sprint to smash into the back box that acts as the finish line.
The concept of the sport is simple enough, but to see it in action is astonishing. Racers, wearing FPV (first-person view) goggles, are able to experience flying through radio transmission with quadcopters that can reach speeds up to 80 miles per hour. These pilots have to maneuver the tiny four-propellered drones inside deliberately treacherous buildings, through deviously small checkpoints, all while jostling for position and being alert to the sudden changes of direction that could lead to a crash. The marriage of ability and technology is stupefying to watch on a screen, and even more so when one is able to see the focus and feel the anxiety of the pilots in-person.
The DRL held its first-ever drone racing simulator competition on January 21, 2017, at Webster Hall in Manhattan, NY. A few weeks before Donald Trump’s administration would order its first drone strikes — a collaborative effort between soldiers and drones that killed at least 25 civilians. A continuation of the last administration’s penchant for using unmanned aircrafts to eliminate targets. The 12 contestants with the highest scores on simulators were invited to compete against each other in a real race. The prize? A chance to become a participant in the first full season of the DRL, airing on ESPN.
Horbaczewski envisions the DRL as the future of sports. Compared to other drone leagues, he asserts, they have a key advantage: “The other leagues just don’t have the technology that we have. It’s simple as that.” In addition to the improved course design that the use of stock drones allows, the DRL has another impressive trick: advanced, drone-POV camera technology that plunges spectators into the thick of the action.
Since its inception as a sport in 2013, when hobbyists in Australia and New Zealand began racing their custom-built drones in abandoned parking garages and warehouses, drone racing has grown tremendously in a short time. A contract to broadcast DRL races on ESPN shows that it’s becoming big business. Reached for comment on the growth of the sport, ESPN director Mike Volk said that the DRL allows the company to “experiment with new formats and programming that serves a passionate and growing fan base.”
I asked Horbaczewski if he thought it was strange that the sport was transitioning to maturity at almost the same time as military drones. He had. In fact, he had even talked about the phenomenon with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, who asked him to create a website for drone safety.
Travis ‘Moke’ McIntyre won the first race in his heat with 435 points. He eventually finished second overall despite the winner coming behind him in that opening race. In their second race, Moke had seemed on the verge of taking the top spot. He went through all four checkpoints in the bowl as smoothly as he had before, turned into the tunnel, danced past the columns, walls and planks, and came out the next tunnel flying towards the center of the stadium. He then doubled back and dove, following the blue light to the double helix, fighting off its hypnotic effect to pull off a clean exit. As he danced back to the blinding green tunnel that led to the last four checkpoints, his drone smashed into a wall, spun and fell to the ground, disabled.
“The most challenging part was probably when you came out of the helical, and you have to make a really funky turn into another tight tunnel,” he explains. “And I know at least one of those times, it was full of smoke, and I ended up going through thinking I was fine.
“The smokes parted and I saw nothing but wall.”
Furadi competed in the first heat of the second qualifying race. A competitor, ‘RekRek’, had the best liftoff, dropping Furadi into second place immediately. As he buzzed through the first gate, the announcer praised him as a pre-race favorite: “Furadi is a leader in the FPV community — inspiring to many — known for his technical knowledge and clean flying style.”
On cue, Furadi’s drone, coming in way too high after taking a too-wide angle on the approach, clipped the top right of the second checkpoint. The commentator had barely even announced the approach of the second gate before he yelped in surprise.
Spaztik went down as RekRek and Hazak navigated the double helix. With just four checkpoints left, Hazak, who had begun to push his speed to risky levels in order to overtake his opponent, suddenly peeled downwards and into the seats. His competitors’ aggression clearing the field, RekRek then finished the race unchallenged.
In the hair-trigger world of the arena, the blanket peace of drone freestyling is shredded, replaced with the dread, thrill and anxiety of extreme sports. Since their goggles makes drone pilots feel as if they’re inhabiting their machines, the prospect of a sudden crash takes on a new edge. The shock of the drone actually slamming into the wall draws a response that can feel as immediate as if it was their own bodies.
For many, the stress can be too much. Their hands sweat and shake, which makes it difficult to handle their drone controllers. And as they pilot their machines at high speeds, their bodies tense up, unable to separate the reality being fed into their eyes and the safety of their seats. Dropping people into alternative realities for lengthy periods of time has been shown to have unfortunate side effects: ‘Simulator sickness’ has caused pilots to suffer nausea, anxiety, eyestrain, headaches, sweating fatigue, general discomfort and much more.
But for some pilots, like ‘FlyingBear’, the total immersion and higher stakes makes the races that much more fun: “If I’m racing, it’s a completely different mindset. There’s adrenaline, there’s anxiety — my nerves are on fire. And it’s really exciting.”
Military drone pilots know those feelings of adrenaline and anxiety. Though war by unmanned aircraft has a veneer of detached impersonality, the conductors of these humane bombings still deal with stress disorders as often as their colleagues on the ground.
The worlds of military and racing drones are starkly different. In the neon riot of an arena, drones are vehicles for sport and fun. Harmless. That innocence extends to many other uses of drone technology as well. Jeff Bezos, for instance, envisions a fleet of Amazon delivery drones. Scientific drones, like the Tempest, can chart mountains in minutes or explore the deep sea.
This remove from the brutal reality of drone warfare is only possible with an immense privilege. Taking tools of war and developing them for science, convenience and entertainment is only plausible in the countries staring at the aftermath of drone strikes through a console rather than their own eyes. Drone racing is exciting, fast, and beautiful. But for some of the world, drones will always be associated with combat.
There’s a dissonance, then, to watching the racers control their drones and train in simulators which could very well be used as preparation for their military counterparts. Most sports have some hint of the martial, of preparing for war. Drone racing in 2017 is tacitly training for armed conflict. The racers are preparing, on a small scale, to pilot machines used in wars that are happening far beyond their bubble.
For now, the destiny of elite drone racers still lies within the sport. If they’re good enough, they can win prize money and notoriety. They use their talents to try to build a large following. They travel across the world on the back of that fame. But it’s not difficult to imagine an ambitious racer deciding to use his talents for his country instead of on a course. And it’s not difficult, either, to imagine their country reaching out first.