Drone Worlds 2016: A Post Mortem

By Kathleen Hickey

There has been a lot said about the Drone Nationals, and the Drone Worlds. Some people think we should stay silent for the good of the sport. Sponsors don't want to get their hands dirty, and put their money into events that are publicly trashed by the people that attended them. Some people think there should be brutal honesty. They want embarrass the organizers, or vent because they are angry due to their own experiences. Some want to make conditions and events better in the future by calling out what has happened in the past. So which is the right thing to do? Let's take a look and see what went wrong, what went right, and you can decide on your own answer. 

Drone Nationals 2016

To have a better understanding of what happened at Worlds, it's worth taking a look back at Drone Nationals which took place on Governors Island in NYC August 5-7. Nationals was set up to be one of the most exciting races the FPV community had seen to date. Both Nationals and Worlds are events by The Drone Sports Association (DSA). Drone racing would be featured live, for the first time on ESPN. There were huge sponsors like GoPro, and AIG that were attached to the race. Pilots throughout the United Stated competed to qualify for the event. The thought of having a huge race, with incredible pilots, in an amazing location was inspiring. In a time when some pilots are making drone racing a career, the idea of being seen on ESPN, with household names sponsoring the event made it monumental, and for some possibly life changing.

As race day grew nearer there were more pilot chats, and conversations on Facebook and other social media about logistics. Governors Island is only accessible by ferry. There were questions about which ferry boat to take, on which side of the island. The location gave way to wonder how DSA would be able to assemble a race, with media, pilots, tents, and technology by ferry boat. Joe Scully, Race Director for FPV Racing Events explained his own frustrations with the transportation when he arrived in New York. "My week started off rough; we arrived 9 minutes late for our booked ferry on Wednesday because our GPS took us in circles in that area of New York. Knowing we’d be pushing it, I called one of the logistics people of US Drone Nationals and asked, “what happens if we miss our booked ferry?” The answer being “You get on the next one”. There was no next one, the schedule posted on the website was for Thursday onwards, we had unintentionally booked the last ferry of the day on Wednesday." But when Joe reached the island the next morning, the transportation issues seemed to now be minor in the face of larger issues. "Thursday morning at 7am we went onto the island for the first time; we were a bit stressed as practice was to begin at noon, and we had a lot of setup to do for the ground stations. When we drove around the corner of field my jaw dropped; there was no race course." As Joe and his team struggled to have the proper equipment which was requested, available to them to set up ground stations, practice days turned into a race day that was not ready for a live broadcast. "Saturday morning I scoured the island and after about 2 hours, I found a skyjack through the help of a volunteer and we moved it into position. After struggling for another 4 hours we had the receivers wired in properly and were ready to race… at 1pm on Saturday, as opposed to 12pm on Thursday. The event began to run smoother (now that video issues had been solved), and then video issues hit hard again. The livestream was using the equivalent of Race Band 6 for their connection to the mainland! We dropped that seat. We also had to drop the equivalent of Race Band 3 as the government buildings were connected to the mainland on a point-to-point losing that seat. Into Sunday, we had even more problems as the livestream had video issues, and moved to the middle of the equivalent of Race Band 5 and 6, and we dropped another seat. We had 5 usable channels." So what was the breaking point of the Drone Nationals? According to Joe, it was seemed much to do with lack of organization and communication. "The build being 1.5 days behind was the biggest thing to go wrong. Leadership not taking advice from their team or contractors was the second largest thing. We could have had the Video Issues solved by Friday Morning had our simple request been addressed."

The Break In Between

After Drone Nationals came a wave of negativity, and frustration from the FPV community. There were complaints about practice time, or lack of it. The course was changed from practice day to the actual qualifier, which made it a challenge for pilots that rely on the practice to help remember the course layout. There were pilots calling each other out on social media, with some feeling like they had to defend themselves, or each other. There were scoring questions, and timing questions that left some pilots feeling cheated, while others vindicated.

At the same time pilots from around the world had spent time and money qualifying for the Worlds, in Hawaii. Chad Nowak (FinalGlideAus) who is the 2015 Nationals Champion, and 2016 Nationals Freestyle Champion decided to withdraw from the Drone Worlds competition after his experience at Nationals. "I have been involved with the the Drone Nationals and what ended up being DSA since nearly the start of things. I was involved both in the public side, and behind the scenes to a certain degree, and things began to focus more on the politics and sponsors (money and power) rather than on the pilots and the races. This gave me many concerns about how the pilots and the whole community would be treated in the long term and this was confirmed at the NY Drone Nationals 2016, and after some thinking I decided to distance myself by not competing (in Drone Worlds)." During the Nationals competition there was an alleged comment that DSA had made about the sponsors being the most important part of the race, which was a comment that did not go over well with pilots that already felt slighted. After Nationals there were changes in DSA, which saw a loss of some of its team. Many wondered if there would be lessons learned in the organization that would make for a better Worlds. Tickets had been bought, and accommodations had been made. Pilots from all over the world would be on their way to Hawaii just 2 months after Nationals. 

Drone Worlds

The Worlds competition was set to start with the Aloha Cup, which was the last official qualifier for Drone Worlds on October 18-19, with the World Championship taking place from October 20-22. Both were plagued with wind, rain, and bad weather, cutting flight time significantly. The contingency plan for the rain was apparently to cut qualifiers. After looking at several weather site, October on average was the 5th most rainy month of the year on Oahu. Organizers seem to put a lot of emphasis on not knowing about the rain and weather, which does not make sense when we are talking about Hawaii in October. 

Joe Scully did not participate in Drone Worlds, but feels that the weather was not as big of an issue as the technology and timing systems used. "My personal feeling about what went wrong in Hawaii however stems back to TBS and VAS. Yes, the event had issues, but the biggest complaint was because of the lack of track time and mass confusion. This all was to be solved by running 2 simultaneous flight lines (IRC and I were prepared to run 4). VAS pulled off a stunt that allowed 16 quads on the same track, and inferred that it could be done in Hawaii. To do that, he required: low power, solid antenna, no diversity, corner of field and alternating polarity. In Hawaii, they did all 16 ground stations 300’ apart between the flight lines on the same polarity. He would have known that wouldn’t work. MultiGP had 3 going 3/4 of a mile a part and I had 2 going 1,400 feet apart… but 300’ was suicide, especially on the same polarity. TBS instructed DSA that their timing system ran the MultiGP Champs (it did not, it only was 3rd backup redundancy and we used it 3 times over the entire event to verify 3 individual laps). It is in beta and kept frying… they blame the weather, but the systems kept getting soaked and frying. I use the analogy of sticking a finger into a wall socket; you don’t put your other finger in the wall socket. They also used a qualifying format that the software didn’t run automatically, which caused a lot of delays for manual execution, PLUS on top of that there were no print outs, so even now, people don’t know their lap-by-lap times for their 3 (of 9 promised) qualifying rounds used to seed them. With the issues, they reverted to stopwatches on phones for a number of heats, which scares me on the accuracy - if (0.2) two-tenths of a second separate 32nd and 33rd (the break-off) and it’s based on 3 laps, that’s 0.066/lap difference… while some times were RSSI based and some were stopwatch based.
Had the 2nd flight line worked, the event would not have had the lynch mob."

The "lynch mob" Joe may be referring to is a meeting that took place after it was determined that the promised qualifying rounds would not be able to take place, and pilots would have to settle with three laps. The meeting was captured, and posted by pilot Paul Nurkkala (Bulbufet FPV)

Besides the technical issues, there were also inconsistencies in judging, which seemed to be apparent in both the race, and freestyle competitions. Jay von Brimer, a judge at Worlds shared his experience. "From my judging view, I saw many inconsistencies, which equals unfairness. Some were given time to fix video channel problems, while others were ordered to unplug, and disqualified for having video problems...There was a minimal meeting explaining the judging, but we had new ones joining and people switching, which made it inconsistent. We oversaw ourselves, but truly did our best to remain accurate and objective."

In the freestyle competition, pilots took turns judging each other in the same competition they were competing against each other in. At the end of the competition, there was talk that one judge had scored all of the pilots significantly low. Jay shared his thoughts on the system. "The freestyle judging is a different story. Pilots judging the freestyle can work, only IF they will give an honest score. That one ended up with possibly a single pilot giving bad scores to everyone, to serve himself. Shouldn't have that much effect, as the other scores will cancel it out."

Danny Chan, was in first place for freestyle after the first day. He had spent the entire day in the freestyle tent assisting with the judging, as other pilots were shuffling between both the freestyle, and race competitions and qualifiers. When heading to the race the next day, freestyle pilots were asked to arrive by 8:00am. Danny had run into car trouble, and traffic on the way to the race. He tried to call, and was also called by organizers, but cell phone reception on that part of the island did not allow for clear communication. The competition started at 8:30, and when Danny showed up at 8:45, he was told he was disqualified, and could not compete. The largest reason being that he was not there for the 15 minutes to be a judge, and that would be unfair to the other pilots. Danny gave me his thoughts on his experience. "The day before. Everyone was late and I was sitting the racing area all the time. But the next day, I got a little trouble. They treat me like a kid and child? And the most important thing which was the judges. Why don't they ask some audience or some professional pilots (don't need to race in freestyle) for judging?"

There was a lack of water, available bathrooms, and a number of safety issues, including battery charging stations that had 100+ battery chargers exposed to the elements and rain in an open tent. There were no sand buckets for damaged lipos. Tents blew down, an estimated 10K in GoPros were stolen, and we haven't even talked about the Wings. 

The VIP Treatment

While at the race, a friend of mine, Ian Richardson, a pilot that competed in both the team and individual race, let me know about his two friends from New Zealand, Fran and Greig that had purchased VIP tickets for Drone Worlds. For $599 each ticket, they were supposed to receive the following: 

Package Features

  • Access to the Super-VIP "Twilight FPV Zone" or the quiet zone just feet from the racing flight deck and the Finish line. Here you will sit so close to the pilots, that you'll hear the banter and trash talking. You can wear a set of FPV Goggles and experience the thrill of the race first hand. You'll be directly in the action, up-front, on the field, complete with the roar of the crowd as you watch the winners cross the finish line. 

    You will see exactly what the pilot is seeing via the onboard camera as he/she navigates with speed and agility through the course. Warning: Please ensure that you are adrenaline/high tension tolerant, and can handle very fast motion vertigo. This is as close as you can get without being a pilot and is completely optional, so if you just want to stand in the Twilight FPV Zone that's ok too, just hold on to something.  
  • Concierge Service with Majordomo to take care of everything you need. 
  • Invitations to all parties, receptions and private events
  • All Access to the Pilot Pit Area to meet/greet pilots, inspect airframes, hang out in the pilot lounge.
  • Access to special demonstrations, exhibits and events.
  • VIP Swag, including branded logo wear and other goodies
  • All Access Badge and Official Lanyard
  • VIP Parking pass.

I spoke with Greig and asked him about his VIP experience. "We bought VIP tickets as I was going to enter the Aloha cup, we had already booked air fares and accommodation but when I went to purchase my aloha cup ticket in early September it said it was sold out." Greig had intended on trying to qualify through the Aloha Cup, but never competed because he was not aware of the wait list, and other rules which had not been communicated to him. I asked Greig if he had received everything that the package had promised. "We were never offered FPV goggles (I did have my own). Our VIP tickets didn't kick in till the start of the championship proper, so no VIP treatment for the aloha cup. We did get offered fruit platters and on the 2nd day there was beer on the third soft drinks. At some times people where kicked out of the VIP area that made me feel like a bit of a douche, rather then a VIP, at one point the NZ team dudes I were talking to got kicked out." And what about the swag? "All we got was a t-shirt, lanyard...the New Zealand team guys had to add me to the Facebook group 'drone world participants' we received zero communication, other then a survey that I found in my spam folder of my gmail." When I asked Greig about his feelings towards the cost of the tickets, he gave a really positive answer. "I would of rather given them Team Pilots) the money or to my local club, we have no money $1,200 USD's would go along way towards gates or ground stations. We have had a great holiday and at this point are kind of over it, I got to meet some cool people and am better friends with the NZ crew, so wasn't all bad."

Everything Must Come to an End

The winner of Drone Worlds, Shaun Taylor (Nytfury) walked away from the race a champion. A truly gifted, hard working, kind, and consistent pilot, the trophy found a good home. Regardless of how many felt about the race itself, one constant positive point that kept coming up was that everyone was happy to see each other. It was a way for pilots from around the world to meet face to face, and say hello to each other, despite what language people spoke, or where they were from, everyone came together for one passion, one dream, and respect for one another. Jay von Brimer said it well, "I think the organizers set high expectations, which also cued pilots to have them also. The event did not come close to the perceived quality expected. The gathering of all the world's top pilot, however, DID awesomely meet and exceed the standards of a world class event."

Hours after the final race, a Facebook page, RIPDSA as well as a hashtag by the same name were born. People were upset, and are upset. The anger and frustration is more focused on DSA, and not pilots against pilots. There are people on social media saying that Drone Worlds should be talked about behind closed doors, that too many people complaining will scare the sponsors away. I agree that the negativity, and anger should be turned into finding a positive solution to problem. But at the same time, I believe in transparency. I'm sure DSA, TBS, and whatever other acronym was involved in the race would love to keep the flaws quiet and forget about it. I'm sure the pilots that paid 2K per pack they flew would like to forget about it as well. The transparency should assist in understanding what went wrong, and how to fix it for next time. 

I reached out to Scot Refsland, and TIm Nilson of DSA for comment, and emailed questions which I have yet to hear a response. I believe at the end of the day, many people that are labeled as "complaining", would like their voices heard, and to have their points acknowledged. Many question if there will be another DSA race, and if there is, will they attend it. Joe Scully commented on the future of the organization. "The Drone Nationals, Drone Worlds movement will most likely come to an end. I think the big positive is that there will become an actual world-wide organization that will be a collaborative effort of all regions and all of the biggest minds of the game, and we will all improve, and our next “World” anything (Drone Worlds, World Drone Prix) will be better for it."

As DSA counts the losses from Drone Nationals, and Worlds, there are other organizations waiting in the wings. The current problem is that not one of those organizations has the total package in line yet. To Joe's point, hopefully Drone Worlds will cause a movement towards an organization that is collaborative. Every organization wants to be "the one" but perhaps two of three of four together is what it will take to make Drone Racing the new 'it' sport. 

I'd like to give full disclosure for this blog. I was not emailed for press/media access for Worlds which I was sent at Nationals. The lack of an email may have been due to the fact that I didn't notice that much press at the event in general. It may have been because I did not attend Nationals. It may have been because I had made public comments about Nationals after the event. Regardless, I would like to make it clear that I attended the race to meet people from around the world that I had not had a chance to meet in person before, and to support my friends that were competing in the race. My boyfriend is Chad Nowak, a pilot that won the 2015 Drone Nationals. After his participating in the 2016 Drone Nationals, he publicly stated that he would not participate in any competitions at the Drone Worlds. 

After Nationals I took a break from my blog to focus on the things that I love about FPV. I saw so much negativity come from that event, I wasn't sure if that event alone had changed the direction of FPV Racing from fun flys in a park with friends to complete corporate rule. I hope that pilots will see what happened in these races and know that they are what makes this sport what it is. I hope they understand their worth, and not keep quiet for some free batteries and stickers. There's blood in the water, and if nothing else, this experience will hopefully show the community which people are the sharks, and which people want to achieve success morally, and with care and grace. Until then....

Happy Flying