Behind the scenes of 'Game of Drones'

Jacksonville drone racing league hopes to see the sport soar

By Tarik Minor - Anchor, I-TEAM reporter, Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Drones have grown in popularity in just the last year, and out of that, a growing sport has emerged: drone racing. It's where pilots use First Person View (FPV) goggles or monitors to give them a real-time in-cockpit view of the race. This sport has gone international, with a local chapter, First Coast FPV, revving its engines, hoping some of you want to get onboard.

First Coast FPV is a chapter with MultiGP, which puts on races a couple of times a month. News4Jax recently spent the day at one of these races to see what it takes to get involved and what this sport is all about.

"We couldn't have asked for better weather," said KC Sealock with First Coast FPV and Builtdrones.

On a recent Saturday morning, the first item on the agenda at St. Johns Country Day School in Orange Park, was to transform the field in the center of the track into the perfect obstacle course for racing drones, known as quadcopters. Gates made mostly of PVC pipe are set up and flags and cones are strategically placed.

Racing pilot Peter Compstone walked the course, explaining the setup.

 "We’ll fly through the gates, so all the quadcopters go through this gate and fly around flags and through the other gates and the cones, and it's a way for you [pilots] to see the course through the goggle," he demonstrated.

The course is designed to challenge the pilots' skills and once it's completely set, all pilots racing on that day walk the course, to know exactly where everything is and where they will need to fly their tricked-out quadcopters to get to the finish line.

Once pilots prepare their drones, including assigning each a frequency so they can see their individual FPV either through goggles or on a monitor during the race, they wait for their heat and get ready for takeoff.

The racers compete in multiple heats, actually, giving pilots time to rebuild any damage that may occur during a race to their dones.

During each individual heat, the pilot places his or her drone on an assigned launch pad and wait for the following announcement: "Three, two, one, go, go, go."

WATCH: FPV camera records drone flying race at St. Johns Country Day School

The pilots are in direct competition with each other along straightaways, around tight corners, all jockeying for position. And depending on the pilot, there are similar and a different reason for doing this.

"It's just beyond fun to fly like a bird," said Compstone.

 "It is the best thing I've done, I was a huge videogammer for years and years," added Sealock. "This is the best video game you've ever seen."

Racing drones are much different from the ones you're traditionally used to seeing, used by television stations or perhaps your average recreational hobbyist, but the popularity of first person racing drones is soaring.

The FPV goggles or monitors give the pilots racing that real life first-person point of view, as if sitting in the drone and flying. In some races, the drones can reach speeds of up to 80 miles per hour, whizzing by, with racers pushing propellers to their limits.

"It's feeding into my monitor, which I'm going to take the video out and then go into my goggles with it," another pilot explained to News4Jax. "People can also watch what I see on my monitor."

"This is the best video game you've ever seen," Sealock added. "It is so immersive, especially wearing the goggles. We liken it to the movie Avatar. You literally put the goggles on, just kind of plug in, and you'll notice there's normally one of two responses: People will either just drop their heads and it looks like they've kind of just checked out, or their head kind of just rolls back a bit cause you get so involved with just being on the aircraft."

For spectators, this is just a cool experience. They can watch from the stands and see the racers soar, and peaking over at the monitors, they can the pilot's point of view, too.

"I think it's interesting," said spectator Stephanie Menciano. "You see it on the news and you see that aspect of people, it’s invading people’s privacy and all that stuff, but this actually just nice to see them compete and have a good time out here."

Another spectator is 8-year-old Kesl, Peter Compstone's son. Kesl isn't to the point of racing yet, but he's learning all about the sport from his dad.

"What do you like to do with your drone?" News4Jax asked Kesl.

"Go through things, have a thrill," he answered.

Just like any race, there's always the potential for accidents and crashes, and with drone racing, there are plenty to go around.

"I’ve gotten a lot of friends, who don’t get into the racing so much, but just like with NASCAR, they’re waiting for the big wreck. Unfortunately with these little guys [quadcopters,] it happens a lot. But we’re ready for it," Sealock explained.

"So these are awards that I've crafted for today," said Kim Barrows, the only female pilot taking part in the race at St. Johns Country Day School. "This is our broken prop award for the spectacular crash of the day and this is our golden prop award for the best flight of the day."

Barrows is a pilot because she loves the thrill, but also she's hoping to recruit other girls of all ages to take part in drone racing.

There's only a small handful of girls even involved in this sport in general," she explained. "You're not going to get girls involved in STEM programs in schools if they don't have something that interests them and I thought this would be killer."

Barrows, who goes by FPVFlyGirl, has started several social media accounts, including Instagram, where she hopes to boost the popularity among females.

It's really quite the "game of Drones." Drone racing originated in Australia but today, there are organized leagues and chapters all across the world, just like the local chapter First Coast FPV which is part of Multi GP. In order to qualify to race in a national drone racing competition, pilots have to earn points through these local races.

Sealock says if you want to take part, you can get started for about $750. That's an investment the drone pilots, News4Jax spoke to, say is worth it because not only do you have fun, you also learn a lot about the technical aspects that go along with it.

There's also a push by the local chapter to one day have drone races at Everbank Field. Earlier this year, the owner of the Miami Dolphins authorized a racing league to turn Sunlife Stadium into a indoor/outdoor race track. If that ever happens here, the view from the first-person pilots would be streamed live on the stadium's huge video scoreboards.

If you have any questions, you can email KC Sealock at jaxrotorcross@gmail.com.

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