As an aviation enthusiast, I try to make it to the Reno Air Races every couple of years. Getting up at 4 am in Sacramento, driving up and over Donner Pass as the sky begins to lighten. Lining up at the front gate, just as the sun comes up over the airfield It is all part of the process for me. The focus of the show is the aircraft and the air races, but I enjoy watching and photographing the people. Maybe as an obsessed fan of aviation, I just feel like I am among friends. Toddlers in feet pajamas, old men with electric carts, racing families sitting on the top of Winnebagos watching the races.
It is quite a mix of humanity.
This year I was caught off guard by an event I knew nothing about. Walking along the displays a group of young men caught my eye. They were moving fast so I had to jog along to get the picture shown above. They all had backpacks with what looked like small helicopters clipped on their backs. Most carried laptop bags, some had baseball caps with team logos on them. A few clenched cans of red bull ( it was 7 am after all!).
I was intrigued, so I followed.
They led me to a giant netted enclosure about the size of a basketball gym with some kind of slalom course inside. Next to it was an elevated platform with tables and chairs and a viewing area. I could see a long tent around the corner and that's where the gentlemen with the backpacks were going so ignored the "pilots only" sign and went along. What I had stumbled into was the "pit area" for the drone pilots. What I saw was hard to describe really. It was high tech, joyous mayhem. Probably 30 or 40 people, mostly young men (but some women) ranging in age from 12 to 40 years of age. Tables crammed with backpacks and hardware. Most people had video goggles on their heads. At one end pilots were lining up by heat, being led by officials to the racing area. There were young boys who looked like nerdy boy scouts mixed in with older pilots who had tattoos, earrings and puffed on vape cigarettes. The event staff were barely keeping up but were beaming from ear to ear. I had a camera and one of them told me "Oh, you've got to go in the Shark Tank if you want to get some good pictures"
They pointed out a line of "easy up" metal frames that made a pathway into the netted enclosure. They basically had set up a netted tunnel into the heart of the course so you could watch the races from close range. From there I watched my first race.
The announcer called up the first heat. The young pilots set their drones on a row of metal stands, and then processed up to the raised platform that had six chairs facing the crowd. Now I am a technologically pretty knowledgeable person but my brain was spinning a bit just trying to figure out what I was seeing. Some of them sat, some stood. All were wearing video googles looking straight ahead. The announcer apologized for some technical problems and started the race with a quick countdown and a verbal "BEEEEEP" into the microphone. What followed was a lightning fast take off and drones zipping around the course like a bunch of angry hornets. Up over and under gates. Some smashed into the pylons, landed on the ground and immediately zipped back up and around the gate a second time. It took me awhile to even get a single photograph.
What was more fascinating was watching the pilots. Some sat slouched and relaxed, heads straight ahead, fingers twitching on the remote controls. Others sweated and were mouthing words of encouragement to themselves. You could tell immediately if someone crashed or went into the net by their body language. Shoulders slumped, goggles yanked off their foreheads, maybe a quick laugh or a grimace on their face. Again the range of ages was fascinating, as shown in the image below.
What I had stumbled into was the 2017 Drone Championships put on by MultiGP. This was the first year at the air show and the energy and enthusiasm was palpable. One of the promoters described the event and pointed out a classroom group of maybe twenty grade school kids visiting the race. He said the drone racing league was participating in a STEM program (Science Technology, Engineering and Math) that promotes getting young kids to pursue advancement and careers in science a technology by introducing drone racing at a grade school level. He also gave me a chance to watch one race through his set of googles, which gives you the first person view from the drone itself. I felt like I was strapped on the nose of an off-road motorcycle zooming around the course.
All this while World War II war birds roared along in the background. The "Next Gen" had invaded the turf of "The Greatest Generation". I couldn't help but feel someone was pulling back the curtain and showing me the future. A future that is coming at us at full speed, just like those quad-copters zipping around the pylons. Drones are already involved in emergency response, military action and construction sites. Robotics tools are becoming a more and more common part of our life.
As I walked back to the main concourse, an old man shuffled along in front of me wearing a "Korean War Vet / United States Air Force" baseball cap. People nodded and smiled at him respectfully making room for him on the crowded pavement as he walked by. I thought about what I just saw in the "Shark Tank". Behind the vape cigarettes, baseball caps and tattoos, those young men and women were skilled, talented people, full of enthusiasm and promise. They have embraced a culture of technology that can be overwhelming to the rest of us.
It made me wonder what the world might be like in 2067. Perhaps the shuffling old man or woman will be wearing a baseball cap that says "Drone Pilot" and the people will be nodding and smiling respectfully just that same.
The Drone Races
And a short video
The Air Races