Team Determined

By Kathleen Hickey

de·ter·mi·na·tion:

                 The act of coming to a decision or of fixing or settling a purpose.

FPV saved my life. If I am in an in-depth discussion with someone about how or why I got into drones, and FPV, I will always say that it ended up saving me. Growing up, and being raised by a single father that suffered from PTSD, made life difficult. Struggling through being homeless, and poor throughout my childhood was not easy. As an adult, the insecurities and fear that I had as a child never went away. I was afraid to make choices, and suffered from depression. I was constantly in survival mode, never really living my life, but just getting through it. I finally got to a place where I thought there was nothing in the world but pain, and I didn't want to live in that world anymore.

There was something about drones, and later FPV, that made me see that there were so many beautiful things in the world that I had not seen. You could fly your Phantom, or put your quad in the air, and your own backyard seemed like a new place. As a child, at night I would wish for wings, so I could leave where I was, and find a nicer place to be. It took a long time, but I finally got those wings I asked for. 

The past few months I took some time off from writing. I felt disconnected from the community, and I felt like I didn't have a story worth telling. It was in conversations with people you're about to read about, like Jerrod, and Robert that I realized again, why I fell in love with it all in the first place. And I thought, if these guys can wake up everyday, and build their quads, and go out and fly, I have no excuses for being able to do it myself. I hope you enjoy learning more about these incredible men and woman. 

Robert Pringle

17308983_1127598274017230_3694903589757461103_n.jpg

Robert Pringle is from Cleveland Ohio, is married and has two little girls. Robert works freelance in sales and marketing. When Robert was 17, he was the passenger in a car accident. Due to his injuries, he would not have use of his right arm. Robert went through intense physical therapy. With time, he has been able to regain some movement in his arm, after practicing Russian Systema, a type of martial arts that he started 6 years ago, and still practices to this day. 

Although his journey into quads is somewhat new, he has ten years of experience in RC aviation. When Robert turned 35, he decided he would try to do more things that he had been wanting to do, but hadn't for various reason. "I guess you could say I was at a spiritual point in my life to where I had to make a transformation." One day he and his wife were walking along a lake, and saw someone flying RC airplanes. Right away, Robert was hooked. " I was like, why am I not doing that? It was one of those things I had always told myself I wanted to do, why am I not doing it? And then I said, well I know why I'm not doing it. I've always told myself I have one hand and I can't. Literally two weeks later I went out and bought my first RC airplane." 

When race quads first came out, Robert wasn't sold. Robert's cousin, Matt Nowakowski (SidewinderFPV) was excited about the new hobby, and got Robert out to fly as well. Even then, drone racing didn't seem that appealing to Robert. "You get there and you have to wait all these rounds until you get to fly a battery pack. You crash out 30 seconds into the race. You have to wait until the next round. And coming from an RC plane background, you don't want to crash your airplane." Two weeks after he had told a MultiGP chapter organizer he would probably not attend another race, he found out Chad Nowak and Rotor Riot were going to visit his local chapter. "I'd been kinda watching Rotor Riot for 6 months because I was following FPV drone racing...so when I found out that Chad wanted to come out to Akron...I'm the type of person that no matter what, I like to meet the top people in that industry." 

At the time Rotor Riot came to visit, Robert had been flying quads for about 4 -5 months. Once the episode aired, Robert's life in FPV would dramatically change. "I tell Chad (Nowak) all the time, this whole thing has changed my life completely upside down. From travel, to sponsored trips, to being a sponsored pilot, to just meeting the different people in the industry and mingling with the top pilots." 

Initially, Robert was unsure about being featured on the show. "At first, I didn't want them to put me in the limelight on Rotor Riot. You know, I was kind of scared of that. Most people with disabilities don't want everyone to know they have a disability, they try to hide it or whatever. But, I was talking with Chad (Nowak) about it, and Chad was like 'Robert man, people probably really need to hear your story. I know you might be embarrassed by it...but there's two ways you can go about this Robert. You can take it as it comes and you can take the quad, and go flying in a fields all by yourself, or Robert, you can take this opportunity and use it as a growing experience, and know that you can be an inspiration.'" 

Robert decided to take the chance, and follow through with being on the episode, and follow the path that it set for him. "I just ran with it. I took caution to the wind and I thought who cares if people know I'm one handed anyway...I needed to learn and grow and get over some things myself, which actually I've always been self conscious of my injury, but now I'm not as self conscious about it anymore. So I think the whole process was meant to bring me to this point."  Robert is now sponsored by Armattan, and often travels to races and other events.

As he started his new journey, Robert knew that he wanted to give back and help other pilots that may have a physical or mental disability. He and Cory Grywalski, also featured in the blog, started a Facebook group called Team Determined Phoenix FPV Project

Team Determined is a highly skilled group of FPV drone racing pilots that have some sort of physical or mental disability. FPV has given them chance to regain some of what life has taken away and we want to share that with you. To Inspire you that you too can do any thing that you put your mind to and overcome your setbacks.
This page is for any one that has overcome any setback in any area of life and want a platform to share your story.

"There was really nothing in the FPV community about guys like us. So me and  Cory were like, hey man, maybe we need to start a team with disabled pilots...we can relate to each other, feed off each other, maybe bring light to their stories the way Chad kind of brought light to my story, and maybe it will help, because it helped me." The Phoenix in the name is meant to represent rebirth, and overcoming difficulties. "These guys have these issues...and FPV is more to them than just racing, it's more than freestyle, it's getting back mobility issues that people have. There are guys coming home from the military...and it's amazing, really the power that FPV can really do for people like us." The page, as well as an awareness for people with disabilities in FPV has grown thanks to the efforts of Robert and Cory. "I think the community needs stories like our to rally around. I think the community needs a cause that's bigger than just drone racing and freestyling. I think stories like yours, and mine, and Jerrod's, and Cory's, and a lot of the people I'm meeting that fly FPV and have disabilities, I think our stories rise above any negativity that's out there. The biggest thing for me, is that I want to make a difference." Robert is known for his great attitude, and support of FPV. I know that he has, and will continue to touch the lives of everyone he meets in a positive way. 

If you'd like to learn more about Robert, follow him on social: 

Facebook * Instagram

      Jerrod Guerney

22396474_10214724154357913_2010265219_o.jpg

Jerrod was born in Estes Park Colorado. He split his time between Estes Park, and Riverton Wyoming when his parents divorced. After high school, Jerrod was a ski instructor, and later joined the Navy. It was there that he became an aviation mechanic. Growing up with a love of airplanes, which he shared with his father, the position was perfect for Jerrod. After serving his time in the Navy, he became an aviation mechanic at the local airport in Cheyenne Wyoming. 

When Jerrod was 25, his life would change forever. Living in an area surrounded by the wilderness, where outdoor sports are popular, Jerrod spent a lot of time out in nature. "I like to fly fish, and I decided that I was going to go fishing this one day. I had just gotten off of work. I worked nights at the airport, and my girlfriend at the time was pregnant, so I decided since I have the next few days off, I was going to stay up, and go fishing, and spend my time staying awake that way, and get on the day schedule so I could be awake when she was." On his way to his fishing spot, which was 30 minutes outside of town, a car in the opposite lane started going into Jerrod's lane, around a steep curb. In an attempt to avoid hitting the other car, Jerrod swerved, and lost control of his won car. He went through the windshield, and broke his neck. The other driver had not stopped to help, although someone at a local bar said they had seen someone come in, seemingly intoxicated, make a phone call, which may have been to the police. The other driver was never found. 

Jerrod's dog, and Akita (named Kita) was also in the car, but made it out of the accident safely. Not willing to go to go with the EMTs at the time, they left Kita behind in a forested area. "I was in the hospital for two weeks before anybody found him. We all thought...we basically wrote him off as dead. After two weeks, even though he was a big dog, how is a domesticated dog going to live that long." Hikers had come across Kita, and he was returned to Jerrod while he was still in the ICU. 

Jerrod spent almost three months in the hospital, moving after two weeks to a specialty hospital, going through various surgeries and rehabilitation. Because of his type of injury, doctors were unsure of the long term effects they would cause. After time, Jerrod learned that he would be paralyzed from the waist down, although he still has feeling in legs. He can also use his arms to a certain extent, but his hands are paralyzed as well. 

Jerrod's relationship with his girlfriend at the time did not last after his accident, his son is now 15. Jerrod had eventually been sent to the VA in Albuquerque New Mexico where he stayed for a year. It was there that he was able to find medications that worked with his injury, and he was able to stop taking medications that he could form a dependency for. He went back to school, and earn an Associates Degree in Psychology. He was able to have dogs again, and function more normally in his day to day life, a process that took 10-12 years. 

It was during a break from school that Jerrod discovered FPV. "One day I was watching YouTube just wasting time and that's when I kind of discovered quad copters and FPV. I don't know if it was a Charpu video that I saw first, or if it was Rotor Riot, but it was one of those. I eventually found Rotor Riot and I was jut like, here's my credit card, take my money, I've got to do this. So I went out and I bought goggles, and I bought a Vortex 250, and everything that goes along with it, a Taranis and a handful of batteries. And I proceeded to just beat the shit out of that poor quad. I think I ran into every post and sign and tree in my neighborhood." Part of Jerrod's affinity for quads is because it reminds him of when he used to ski. "It reminded me of skiing, actually because I used to like to ski in the trees where there was soft fluffy snow. And you pick out a line, and sit between the trees on the way down...and when I saw FPV I thought, oh my God this is exactly the same." Jerrod has had past experience with RC cars, but never anything that flew. 

To use the Taranis, Jerrod has to use specially made dowels. "Those are the key to the lock for me, basically without those I'm not able to do anything. It was kind of funny, I bought everything, and then I was like, oh shit, how am I going to do this." Jerrod went to the metal shop at the community college he attends, and asked the other students for advice on how he could modify the Taranis. After a few days of trial and error, Jerrod made a "T" out of the dowels, and drilled holes so he could fit them over the existing sticks. 

After his Vortex, Jerrod wanted to build his own quad, and after one build, went to the QAV R. This summer he bought an XHover Stingy Frame. "I've always been a tinkerer, so I like to build and work on stuff. That I really enjoy. It drives me crazy but in a good way. I like trying to figure out the problems of, you know, I can't hold a screwdriver, so how am I going to get the top plate off. And how am I not going to burn myself with the soldering iron, but get the stuff I want done...and I like when I'm done, to plug in a battery and see it work." Although Jerrod had previous experience with soldering, and building balsa planes, he turned to YouTube for help with how to build his quads. Because he is unable to use many tools with his hands, Jerrod uses his mouth to hold his soldering iron, as well as other tools. Some tools he is able to use with his hand, which stays in a fisted position. Soldering motors to the ESCs can take Jerrod up to an hour to complete, per motor. Jerrod's dog, Molly is able to help him by picking up items that are accidentally dropped. If Jerrod works 4-5 hours a day continuously on a frame, he can have it done in an average of 3-4 days. For Jerrod, the hard work and long hours is worth the experience he has when he flies. "I sit in a wheelchair all day, and there's not a whole lot of opportunities to go ski those trees like I used to, or up until recently I haven't even been able to drive a car. Being able to put the goggles on and take off and go fast, do flips and rolls, and have that out of body experience that everybody gets when they start flying. 5 minutes at a time, it's just amazing." 

Although he has not raced yet, Jerrod is looking into MultiGP groups in his area that he could be a part of during the summer. Another goal is to continuously improve his skills. As far as advice for people with disabilities that would like to fly, and really people in general, Jerrod had this to say. "I always hate using my disability and talking about it because I don't want it to be forefront in my life. But that's pretty naive. It's forefront no matter what. I would just like people to understand that if they're interested in flying quads, or they're interested in flying real airplanes...you can't focus on the fact that you don't have a quadcopter that will do what Charpu's will do. You can't focus on the negative things, or else that's where your focus goes. I learned in Psychology that the body follow thought, and the thought follows body. So if you want to do something, start focusing on doing it, and not the reasons why you can't."

If you'd like to learn more about Jerrod, follow him on social: 

Instagram

Zoe Stumbaugh

23846258_542394092766768_1635473606_n.jpg

I remember when I first started researching FPV. I watched a video of highlights from the 2015 Drone Nationals. That was the first time I saw Zoe Stumbaugh. She was also the first female pilot I saw fly FPV. Zoe started flying a few years ago while struggling with various health issues. " I was bed-bound due to a plethora of heath problems, have had several surgeries trying to repair colon, leg, pelvic and other issues. Had to drop out of college, couldn't ride my motorcycle or engage in life." Once Zoe caught on to quads, she took the time and effort to learn how to fly, and build. "Took me months of research and flying LOS before I built my first machine.... this was back in the days of SimonK and the Naze32, when Blackout Mini-H was king and SunnySky was all the rage lol." 

Like many others in drones and FPV, Zoe has a background in gaming. "Have been a gamer most of my life, playing a past down Atari 2600 and quickly moving through the ranks of consoles till I became a computer nerd proper at the ripe age of 12. Loved a lot of different types of games but always gravitated towards racing sims like Grand Turismo, recently have been playing Assetto Corsa, Project Cars, and Dirt Rally in VR. Good fun." 

Zoe has not only paved the way for female pilots, but has created her own unique style, which includes 3D flying. "Always sorta thought a drone should have the ability to fly inverted... Had seen the awesome 3D Heli videos of Alan Sazbo, then stumbled onto Curtis Youngblood and his collective pitch Stingray 500... Started researching how to do 3D with Fixed Pitch quads over a couple years ago now and tinkering with it... since then Flyduino has nearly perfected it on the ESC's and FC- and new Props, Motors, and frames designed from the ground up for 3D. it's become a bit of an obsession of mine lol." 

Although some people may see Zoe as more of a freestyle than a racing pilot, she has competed in both rather equally, and successfully. "I've taken home 7 trophies in 2017 so far- 4 for racing and 3 for Freestyle, and placing in the top 5 of most national and international competitions I enter. Not to mention winning the first AMA race in the USA, and was the black sheep on Team Black Sheep at the first US Drone Nationals." Throughout the time that I've known Zoe, I've seen her share, and be open about her medical issues on social media. I asked if she spoke out to help others, or if ti was comforting to share her story. "It's hard to find a balance of what I want to share- it's definitely helped me deal with things. Right now I'm fighting with Pudendal Neuralgia along with some other nerve damage and pain, along with almost no feeling in my left leg and a constant ache-pain where the nerve was damaged along with severe stomach pain and nausea. Seems like I've helped a lot of people just by being myself and carrying on."

I've found myself, that when you're open about a personal subject on social media, people that share the same issues and struggles will often confide their own stories. I asked Zoe if there was a story or person that has been memorable. "My friend Steve that flies FPV, and 3D. He's a local Ex-Pro Surfer that suffered from a severe TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) several years ago, and has found FPV to be therapeutic. He beta-tested the Xcaliber frame that I fly- I try to keep him fed with spare parts to stay flying. 3D is hard on the rigs haha. Really though, there are countless stories that have inspired me and continue to do so." 

When speaking to Zoe about the benefits of flying FPV while going through a medical hardship, she said this. "From the community of people, to the mind altering experience that is FPV... it got me out of the house in the limited capacity that I could muster, it gave me a purpose. Kept my hands and mind busy and away from the mess that was/is life." Zoe first met Robert Pringle at the first FPV Jamboree. "They had invited us both out as guests. Ended up hanging out with him a bit, ripping the sky apart, and an amazing Rafting Trip in Oregon I'll never forget." When Team Determined was started, Robert reached out to Zoe to invite her to the group. "Team Determined is close to my heart- when the group first formed and Robert invited me, it was like finding another home with people that could relate to some of my struggles, which I was strongly missing." 

Through any pain or discomfort, Zoe continues to fly. "When I started flying FPV I had a cain and could barely walk, would prop myself up on a tree and have an assistant work the machine." Her vast experience in racing has taught Zoe how to manage through an injury while at an event. "Managing myself physically at events can be rough, have started incorporating mindfulness body awareness and dancing.... Besides that, just knowing comfortable seating is around... if not you may see me on the floor chillin' it's cool- am just getting comfy. I've been better about traveling with friends and almost always having a "travel buddy" of some sort." As far as the mental benefits of flying, Zoe describes how it has helped her when going through a hard time. "Flying FPV on a regular basis creates a pattern of positive chemical release within the brain, flooding it with adrenaline and other chemicals that are naturally uplifting that forces you to engage in being in the moment. It's like a magical dissociative anti-depressant to that makes forces you to think outside yourself for a few minutes at a time." For pilots that may also going through a tough moment in their lives, Zoe gives this advice. "Can't say it get's easier, I know with my nerve damage I may never recover fully and that I'll constantly live in pain... it's a constant struggle. What I can say is this, you can't change what happens to you, only how you deal with it. Silver lining being that you can't truly appreciate the good things in life till you have experienced true personal loss. Embrace the suck, live with it, and don't let it define you." For people that may feel discouraged, "Simply "Keep Flying"-it's a message that is held with my first machine in the National Model Aviation Museum's Permanent Collection. It's been almost 3 years and it still serves as a constant driving force for my passion in life." 

If you'd like to learn more about Zoe, follow her on social:

Facebook * Instagram * YouTube

Ryan Pressler

21245693_10155272063824902_1212912685_o.jpg

Ryan is 32,  and started flying FPV last year. He has a wife, and two children. Around 28, Ryan started suffering from back spasms. A combination of dirt biking, fire fighting, and a work injury meant that at 30, Ryan's doctor told him he needed to have back surgery. At the time, Ryan worked as an EMT. "I'm a medical assistant EMT by trade. My work was unique. We did something called tissue recovery. We could surgically recover nerves, bones, eyes, corneas, hearts, veins, skin, and organs for transplant usage." Ryan was also diagnosed with work related PTSD. "I was laid up with 2 spine injuries. Deep into drugs and self loathing. I was just diagnosed with ptsd and I literally couldn't walk unassisted." Ryan's friend offered a drone to lift up his spirits. "My buddy Patrick called me up and offered me a Syma X5C. Being the proud man I was I initially said no. Although I wanted a quad so bad. He gave me the drone because he knew I was depressed, about to kill myself." Ryan was on pain killers, and other medications. He was also not able to work. 

Being able to fly was a positive distraction. Ryan told me about his first flight. "It was horrible! I put the quad in a tree and I burnt out a motor. But aside from that part it was the most free I had been in months. I was able to move up, down, do a flip. All I had to do was think really hard and translate to my fingers. Which weren't working great but working." Ryan started flying LOS, and later moved to FPV. Being able to fly has completely changed Ryan's outlook on life. "It's changed everything. My outlook which was bleak as hell before is now positive. I'm always planning new builds and tinkering. Drives my wife nuts. I'm always thinking for my next race. It's made me happy. I can never ride a dirt bike again. My back and neck can't handle it. Being confined to the house was just horrible. It's given me a way to go out and be free, I'm happy." 

Ryan has recently been sponsored for Tiny Whooping. "When I'm hurting physically, or mentally I fly. I'm plagued by nightmares. I get them a lot. One of the best therapies I have is I'll wake up at 2am and go Whoop." Although he does not have a larger quad, he's saving up for one. "I want to get into bigger stuff more. Right now financially whoops are just so much easier. You can't freestyle on a whoop like you can a 5incher." The FPV community has also helped Ryan through his injuries. "They don't judge you. Even if you suck. These guys, they want you to do better. It's really helped my self esteem and drive. Just a bunch of peeps looking like goobers at the park crashing our toys. And laughing."  Although he can't say that flying has directly impacted his health, Ryan is now off of most of the medications he was on, and generally more positive. 

As far as advice to others going through a similar situation, Ryan had this to say. "There is hope, it may not be the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. It's never easy, probably never will be. I'll still dealing with my own demons. But, this gives you a chance to be who you used to be. This gives you freedom. Being locked within yourself sucks. Flying, gets you out of that. I'm not saying this will replace therapy. That helped me too. I still see my therapist, but he's actually encouraged me. When he found out what i was doing he hugged me. Don't ever stop moving forward. If you can't run, then walk, if you can't walk, then crawl. If you can't crawl then do something! For me, that was flying." 

Cory Grywalski

18424197_1180967062013684_1007574549102719790_n.jpg

Cory was born and raised in Cambridge Ohio. He has an identical twin brother, and two older sisters. His father was a custom home builder and has recently retired. His mother owns a hair salon. Cory was born with Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita (AMC). Symptoms can vary in degree from person to person. Cory's brother Keith was not born with ACM. "Growing up in a small town where I grew up, I think I was the only child in a wheelchair. I was raised as a child of like, I didn't have a disability. I was raised exactly like my twin brother, and my sisters." Even though his father was a custom home builder, Cory grew up in a non-accessible home. "My parents kind of raised me in a way, that if you want something bad enough, you just have to work hard enough and get it. There was no babying me in that aspect. I was very lucky to have the parents that I did."

After high school, Cory moved to Florida to attend college at Edison University. After a few semesters, he realized that school was not the best fit for him. "I kind of had a pathway in my life, with my disability especially, I didn't know what the future outcome really had for me. So I thought, do I want to waste time in school...or do I want to live my life, and experience experiences, and do things that I may never get to do in life, because what if my disability gets worse." Cory stayed in Florida for a couple of years, and then moved to Colorado. 

While there, Cory got into off road wheelchair mountain biking. "When I was a kid I was watching this nature show called Next Step and they showed this off road wheelchair...and I was like blown away." It took 11 years, but eventually while in Colorado, he found an adaptive sports center that had the bike, three hours from his home. "I literally worked every week, so I could go there every weekend. I would drive three hours one way. I was lucky enough to qualify for a scholarship, because normally it's pretty expensive to rent this bike, with people to go out with you." 

Cory eventually moved back to Ohio. It was there that his brother Keith introduced him to quads. "I looked, and that's when I first saw the french guys racing in the woods, and that was my first video...and I was hooked." That Christmas, Cory's mom bought him a small drone off of Amazon. "From that Christmas, Keith and I were looking on Amazon, and wherever you can find drone parts to buy frames and motors. Three years ago there wasn't much out there." Cory and Keith realized that Ready Made RC was close to their home, and started purchasing their gear there. 

13668722_10210413030468488_1174523820744754282_o.jpg

Cory and his brother started their own frame business, Twin Quad Frames this January. It came about during one of the hardest times that Cory and his family have gone through, while his father was battling Pancreatic Cancer. Cory and his brother used quads as an outlet while their dad was in the hospital. "Keith and I have always just been builders. We always wanted our own frame, just because what we were flying out there didn't really seem to work exactly how we wanted." What had initially been a project for them to build a frame each for personal use, turned into a business. "I had posted some pictures on my private Instagram...we got a ton of feedback...people asking how do I get one, I want one." They decided to produce 5 frames, which quickly sold out, and then produced more and more. They now have 4 different frame types available. I'm happy to note that my interview with Cory took place on his father's birthday, and that he is now a cancer survivor, and doing well.  

Cory met Robert Pringle at a MultiGP race in Cleveland. They quickly became good friends, and started the Team Determined page together. "Me and Robert kind of combining, and talking, and we joked around about it at first, like we should start an only people with disabilities team." What may have started as a bit of a joke to them, turned into a a realization that there was a need for a group like that in FPV. " We realized very quickly it's not all about a physical disability. Because at first that's where we were shallow in thinking, it's a little but harder if you're physically disabled to do these things with these two little joy sticks. So we have had to adapt, and make things to make this work for us. And then we realized what it could really do mentally for us. That's when we realized, this takes people with PTSD and types of depression, and whatever, outside of their world that they live in, and just blast them off somewhere else." Besides the Team Determined Page, there is also a private chat where members can talk privately about person struggles, and accomplishments, and support each other. 

When speaking with Cory, his passion and love for FPV are clear. When asked what FPV meant to him, he said this. "I was born unable to walk. Imagine if I woke up tomorrow out of bed, and unbeknownst to me, I'm able to walk, and I'm completely able bodied. If I woke up like that, I would start running and never stop. I swear to you. I would go out immediately and buy a bike, and a skateboard, and everything that I couldn't do, and do them. So FPV, imagine getting a brand new pair of legs, the very next morning, would you ever stop running? FPV to me is like that. I put on a pair of goggles, and I can finally run, and I am just not stopping." 

If you'd like to learn more about Cory, follow him on social:

YouTubeInstagram

I would like to thank everyone featured in this blog, for their honesty and being brave enough to share their stores with everyone.

Happy Flying 

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