When Nick Roosen tells people he’s a drone pilot, he is often asked the same question: “Oh, so are you going to come spy on my house?”
The answer is no, but the question typifies the lack of awareness and understanding around drones that has persistently placed barriers in the path of Roosen and the hundreds of other Coloradans working to develop a community around drone racing.
Roosen recently took over as president of Aurora/Parker/Denver FPV Rotocross, the largest Colorado-based chapter of MultiGP, a 2-year-old league of drone-racers that surpassed 16,000 registered members around the world in March.
Although there are other, smaller drone-racing leagues, MultiGP is the only one working on a grassroots level to develop the activity into a professional sport, according to Michael Gianoutsos, MultiGP’s chief marketing officer. The league’s strategy is to corral the local groups of drone pilots that have organically sprung up around the country in recent years into a single organization and to give them the support they need to formalize the sport.
As individual chapters grow, they rise through MultiGP’s three-tier system. When a chapter reaches Tier 3, it is sent race gates, the standard obstacle for a MultiGP race. At Tier 2, chapters receive race flags. And at Tier 1, chapters get more sponsorship support and prizes to give out to the winners of their races.
A drone race is neither a marathon nor a sprint. It’s more of an augmented reality obstacle course. In a typical race, five to eight pilots line up, controls in hand and wearing goggles that display videos transmitted from their respective drones. The two-way transmission gives the pilot a first-person view from the drone as he or she zooms through gates, around flags, and loops back toward the finish line at speeds reaching 60 miles per hour.
MultiGP, which has five full-time and five part-time employees across the country, provides software to help coordinate these races in addition to the physical elements necessary to put together a proper course.
Because pilots generally build their drones as well, the sport tends to attract a mix of thrill seekers and garage tinkerers.
“We have a lot of ex-motorcycle racers that got sick and tired of crashing and getting beat up,” Gianoutsos said. “They say you get the same adrenaline rush out of drone racing as those sports.”
On top of the unique racing experience, the sport offers a relatively low barrier to entry. One can compete at a baseline level with around $500 worth of equipment, according to Shawn O’Sullivan, who handles press relations at MultiGP.
“It’s not the best gear, but it’ll get you started,” he said. “A top of the line kit will cost you between $1,000 and $2,000.”
Taking flight in Colorado
Colorado has proven to be something of a hotbed for drone-racing. In addition to the Aurora/Parker/Denver group, which is the second largest Tier 1 chapter in the world, there are seven registered MultiGP chapters and around 250 active pilots in Colorado, according to Roosen.
Jordan “Jet” Temkin, who won the 2016 Drone Racing League championship broadcast on ESPN, is a member of the Big Whoop chapter in Fort Collins. Another Big Whoop member, Jesse Perkins, is credited with inventing a new category of drone, a micro-quadcopter with ducted blades known as the “Tiny Whoop.”
Despite the growing interest, Roosen said Colorado is not immune to the challenges facing drone-racing throughout the country.
“The first thing people saw about drones was spying and the military purposes,” Roosen said. “That’s how they were presented in the media, and that stigma is still around.”
That stigma is reflected in municipal regulations, according to Roosen. The City and County of Denver, for example, has not adjusted its no-drone policy despite the new applications for the technology. That pushes local drone-racers to less popular open areas.
For two years, Roosen and others organized some of their bi-weekly races without issue under a water tower in Dacono. Then, after 9News reported on the local racing community in February, Dacono Mayor Joe Baker sent the news clip around to his staff, according to City Administrator AJ Euckert.
“It took all of us by surprise,” Euckert told Crain's Denver. “We didn’t know it was happening.”
Euckert said he then asked the MultiGP community for a “handshake agreement” to suspend their races under the water tower while the city conducted research on the issue.
Part of the problem was that someone, not a member of any MultiGP chapter, according to Roosen, flew their photography drone up near the water tower and got it stuck near emergency broadcasting equipment.
“We understand there are two different situations,” Euckert said. “But the city has to make sure nothing damages the equipment. It’s a safety issue.”
While Euckert insisted that there was never any discussion relating to traditional fears around drones, like privacy, Roosen said that the incident reflects broader trends stemming from that stigma.
“It’s hard to convince cities we are going to do it in a safe manner,” Roosen said. “To even get city officials to agree to a meeting is a challenge.”
Room for growth
To keep the sport’s growth steady amid the turbulence of regulation and negative social perceptions, one of Roosen’s first objectives as president of the Aurora/Parker/Denver group is to register as a chapter of the Academy of Model Aeronautics, an 81-year-old nonprofit out of Muncie, Indiana dedicated to model aviation.
The AMA welcomed MultiGP as a special interest group representing first-person drone-racing in 2015. AMA-registered fields have their own set of rules, and the field at Chatfield State Park, for example, bars drone-racing entirely.
“[They] just want a nice runway [for their model planes],” Roosen said, “and we want a nice grassy field.”
Roosen is also hoping to level up his group’s sponsorship situation, as MultiGP largely leaves sponsorship deals up to individual chapters. There is growing interest from both drone-related companies and other companies in general, according to Gianoutsos, but Roosen said it’s been difficult to move away from in-kind sponsorships and toward cash-based relationships.
The chapter’s website lists 10 companies as supporters, including Bellevue, Washington’s Eagle Tree Systems and Littleton, Colorado’s DRONEXLABS, but Roosen said he doesn’t know how current those relationships are.
“We need to reach out and see if they are still willing to sponsor us this year,” he said.
“Something I plan to do is target local businesses,” Roosen added. “It’s great getting drone-related products, but a lot of us have particular products we already like.”
Roosen said he plans to target restaurants, self-storage places, printers, and other consumer products companies for the chapter’s 2017 activities.
“We want to get stuff that our members can use,” he said.
Marketing the sport
Part of the challenge of attracting sponsors is selling drone-racing as a spectator sport. Anyone with a set of the right goggles can access the video feeds streaming from competing drones, but the drones can be too small and fast-moving for many newcomers to follow without them, according to Roosen.
“We’re hoping to bring a TV [to our races] in the future, so spectators can watch the feeds from all our pilots at the same time,” he said. “It all costs money though.”
To broaden access for potential spectators, MultiGP and some of its chapters stream races at www.fpvlive.tv.
Growing pains aside, any drone-racer will tell you that the sport is likely to continue its upward trajectory.
“It’s not just about being the next X Games,” Gianoutsos said. “There’s something more primal about what we do, and it’s flight. Everyone has dreamed of flight, it’s something that binds us all.”