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Written by Patrick Sherman
Hosting an AMA-sanctioned event in the middle of the city that never sleeps
Event coverage
Photos by the author
As seen in the December 2016 issue of
Model Aviation.

Bonus video: Pilot interviews

Bonus photos

Model Aviation Magazine - US National Drone Racing Championship 2016

Competitive RC flying came to Governors Island in New York Harbor this past summer—a mere 800 yards off of the tip of Manhattan—at the US National Drone Racing Championship. This is an amateur competition with a $50,000 purse, sanctioned by the AMA.

AMA has provided support to flying competitions for decades, but several factors combined to make this event unique. First was the venue. Pilots steered their machines through gates and obstacles against a one-of-a-kind backdrop—the elegant facets of Freedom Tower rising high above New York’s Financial District, and the Statue of Liberty.

Second was the attention that the event received. There were live broadcasts on ESPN3, plus write-ups in national media outlets, including Time, Fortune, and Forbes. Smaller publications across the country provided additional coverage, as did some of the hometown newspapers of the 150 pilots who qualified to compete.

The racecourse at the US National Drone Racing Championship was specifically designed to highlight the historic landmarks that surround it, such as the Statue of Liberty, seen here through the netting that was installed to protect spectators from rogue aircraft.

"I wonder: are these really drones, or are they traditional aircraft, something like all of us old guys fly? ... What, really, is the difference between this and what we’ve always done?"

In the middle of it all stood one man, Andy Argenio, AMA District I vice president and chairman of the organization’s Advanced Flight Systems Committee, who served as the contest director (CD). Assisted by Stephen Brehm, Andy was responsible for ensuring safety at the event—a substantial challenge at a competition that drew more than 10,000 spectators during three days of racing, in some of the most congested, low-altitude airspace in the entire US.

It was a unique perch, and one that made Andy an eyewitness to history. Yet, for the event’s exclusive focus on drones and FPV technology, he recognized something familiar in the young pilots hard at work in the pits and competing on the flightline.

“This brings me back to my early days in the hobby, when we had a real passion for what we were doing. We could build and tweak our own systems, and these fellows are doing the exact same thing,” Andy said. “Sometimes, when I hear people talking about ‘drones,’ I wonder: are these really drones, or are they traditional aircraft, something like all of us old guys fly? They don’t have GPS units installed, they aren’t capable of autonomous flight, and it is low-altitude flying. What, really, is the difference between this and what we’ve always done?”

CD Andy Argenio (R) confers with co-CD Stephen Brehm while supervising flight operations at the US National Drone Racing Championship.

A Historic Venue for Making History

Originally, race organizer Scot Refsland, the chairman of the Drone Sports Association (DSA), had entertained the notion of hosting the event in New York’s Central Park. “A friend of mine works for ABC and organizes concerts in the park, so I asked her about the possibility, and she said my chances were zip, zilch, nada. It was never going to happen,” he recalled. “However, as an alternative, she suggested Governors Island.”

The 172-acre patch of ground had been a military outpost since the Revolutionary War, when the heavy guns at Fort Jay denied England’s Royal Navy access to the East River. At the start of the 19th century, the Army built Castle Williams on the island. Housing more than 100 cannons behind 8-foot-thick sandstone walls, the circular fortress became a model for coastal fortifications for nearly 100 years.

In 1966, the Army withdrew and the Coast Guard established a base on the island. Then, after 30 years, the Coast Guard shut down its operations, ending more than 200 years of military history at the site. In January 2001, outgoing President Bill Clinton established the Governors Island National Monument, encompassing its historic structures. Later that year, incoming President George W. Bush sold the remainder of the island to the people of New York for $1.

Completed in 1811, Castle Williams kept watch over New York Harbor during the War of 1812 and the Civil War. In 1903, it was converted into a military prison.

The only access to the island is by ferry, with departures from the southern tip of Manhattan to the north, as well as Brooklyn to the east. The island is open to the public during the summer months, with the number of annual visitors approaching 500,000.

Scot’s ambition to hold the race on Governors Island was substantially bolstered by the New York City chapter of the Drone User Group (DUG), which is headed by the organization’s national president, Steve Cohen. A year earlier, DUG hosted a fly-in on the island.

“The genesis of that event was that we had posted a meetup date on our website, but we didn’t actually have a location for it,” said Steve. “The Governors Island team approached us and said, ‘Hey, would you like to fly out here?’ For me, it was like, ‘Is this a trick question?’ New York City is such a challenge to fly in, because of all the low-altitude manned air traffic.

“The Governors Island Trust is part of the mayor’s office, so that meant we had already cleared some hurdles. However, we did do our own due diligence—we filed a NOTAM, contacted all of the heliports in the area, the local FAA Flight Standards District Office, and the New York Police Department Air Division. Then, before we even let people get on the ferry to come over to the island, we made sure that they had geofencing set up on their drones to prevent flyaways.

Scot Refsland is the chairman of the DSA, which organized the US National Drone Racing Championship on Governors Island.

“In the final analysis, we may have been a little overcautious, but that’s how good events get run.”

The Road to New York

The Drone Nationals were unique in another regard. Every pilot who competed had qualified at a previous AMA-sanctioned event. There were 21 qualifying events across the US, from a cave in Kentucky to a polo field in Oregon. Roughly 1,400 pilots participated in those local races, and only 150 of them made it to New York.

The competition was divided into four categories: the marquee individual drone racing championship, flown with 330mm FPV multirotors; a team racing event; a freestyle acrobatic competition (also flown with multirotors); and wing racing.

Heather McDowell, a member of Team Legit, prepares to compete in a wing racing event at the US National Drone Racing Championship.

Zachry Thayer claimed the top prize at the US National Drone Racing Championship, winning the individual quad racing category.

According to Andy, the participation and interest in the Drone Nationals are reflective of a larger trend occurring within the AMA. “As of last March, we had about 4,000 members who were actively competing in drone racing,” he said. “Just about now, that’s hit about 20,000 members. It’s the fastest-growing area that we’ve seen in the hobby, and we think it’s going to continue that way because it does represent a hobby: a passion and a shared interest that relates to what all of us do in model aviation, no matter what particular disciple we’re engaged in.”

Within the AMA, drone racing is overseen by a dedicated Special Interest Group: MultiGP. Also known as Multirotor Grand Prix, the group was established by Chris Thomas as a grassroots organization to promote the sport and encourage new pilots to get involved and fly in a safe, responsible manner. Its partnership with AMA was announced in November 2015, and in early September 2016, the group held its own national championship in Muncie, Indiana.

On Governors Island, the race was held on a patch of open ground along its northwest shore known as the Play Lawn. Home to a pair of youth baseball diamonds, it was given over to the Drone Nationals during the extensive preparations leading up to the August 5-7 competition.

A drone provides an aerial perspective of the racecourse and the tents that provided shelter from the sweltering New York summer sun.

The course included a number of innovative features that would be unfamiliar at conventional RC flying competitions. The spectators, racing staff, and pilots were protected from wayward aircraft by 30-foot nets that surrounded the most vulnerable portions of the flight path.

“I’ve been in the hobby since the 1950s,” said Andy. “Even after all those years, when I see the attention that has gone into the safety of this event, I’m very impressed. That netting completely protects everyone involved. Then, before the race, the pilots walk the course to build their familiarity with it. I’d like to see some of these ideas adopted by other competitions we hold within the AMA.”

Andy was particularly impressed by the “Aquarium.” It is a box constructed with bulletproof Plexiglass that put spectators directly in the path of the oncoming aircraft, giving them a way to experience the speed and maneuverability of these aircraft firsthand.

“I thought it was a great idea, although at first I didn’t realize you could stand in it,” Andy said with a laugh. “I thought it was another obstacle, but then I saw the people inside and I think they got a big kick out of it.”

The “Aquarium” proved to be a big hit with spectators, allowing them to stand directly in the flight path of the oncoming drones—fully protected by a sheet of bulletproof Plexiglas.

The course also included elevated gates, some up to 30 feet above ground level, which required pilots to navigate in three dimensions. Scot, who developed the course on a computer, described Quidditch as his inspiration for the design.
For any muggles among the readership of Model Aviation, Quidditch is an imaginary sport played by Harry Potter and his chums at Hogwart’s School of Wizardry and Witchcraft, riding flying broomsticks in pursuit of the elusive Golden Snitch.

Growing Pains

Like many drone racing events, the New York competition was hampered by frequency management issues. While the pilots use the same 2.4 GHz transmitters to control their aircraft that are standard in every other type of RC flying today, which can support hundreds of people flying simultaneously, only a handful of channels are available in the 5.8 GHz band that can carry the FPV video feed.

That attention to detail and readiness to step in and correct problems allowed more than 1,000 drone flights to take place in three days without a single incident—a firm testament to the effectiveness of the AMA Safety Code and the dedication of the individuals responsible for enforcing it.

Outside interference from sources can include a spectator’s cellphone, wireless internet connections, or other pilots inadvertently powering up their own transmitters during testing in the pits. All have the potential to ground a pilot by blocking the real-time video signal from his or her aircraft.

Scot identified spectrum management as the biggest challenge throughout the entire event and acknowledged the frustration that some pilots felt at the problems and delays that it caused.

“After the event, there was a lot of back-and-forth between the different companies that make video transmitters in the forums online, and each one felt that they could have handled it better,” he said. “In the end, it just didn’t matter. It wasn’t the transmitters; it was the environment. I saw the spectrum analyzer during the event, and there is no transmitter that is going to give you clear video if the channel is already being drowned out by other signals.”

Scot hopes that these problems can be addressed in the future, either by getting the Federal Communications Commission to set aside a portion of the radio spectrum for drones (a slow and cumbersome process), or by moving to an alternative technology that bypasses the problem.

Israeli manufacturer Amimon attended the race to promote its new Connex Pro-Sight system, which provides a zero-latency, high-definition video link using a digital signal. It is capable of supporting as many as 16 simultaneous transmissions. “Unfortunately, their system wasn’t ready in time for this event, so we weren’t able to make the move to digital,” Scot said. “That’s why we stuck with the analog system, in spite of the problems.”

Other issues, including some related to safety, emerged throughout the weekend, requiring Andy and other AMA representatives to intervene. “Here’s one example,” Andy said. “We had some people sitting on the lawn outside the course, watching the quads, and it was perfectly fine for them to be there. However, then we switched over to wing racing, and suddenly they were directly under the flight path. Rich Hanson, AMA’s government and regulatory affairs representative, who was there at the event to speak as part of a panel, saw right away that we had a problem, so we shut the whole thing down until we could clear them out.”

That attention to detail and readiness to step in and correct problems allowed more than 1,000 drone flights to take place in three days without a single incident—a firm testament to the effectiveness of the AMA Safety Code and the dedication of the individuals responsible for enforcing it.

Something Old, Something New

Scot praised the AMA for its contribution to the success of the Drone Nationals. “They helped us across the board,” he said. “Andy, Rich, and Steve just did a spectacular job. They kept things moving forward in a safe and orderly manner.

“The whole organization has done so much in the past year to help get the whole ecosystem of drone racing set up, partnering with MultiGP to help establish a path for new, amateur pilots to get involved in the sport, and sharing their knowledge and experience with us here at the DSA.”

Ultimately, Scot’s plan is to establish drone racing as a professional sport, similar to NASCAR or the Reno Air Races. In order to participate, pilots will be required to possess a Part 107 certificate, allowing them to fly drones commercially, as well as a Letter of Authority granted by the DSA through its relationship with the FAA.

“Even after that happens, the AMA is still going to be an integral part of the process. Many of our qualifying events will still be sanctioned by the AMA,” he said. “The AMA is handling the evolution of this sport in exactly the right way—they are keeping an open mind, but also providing critical feedback, and we need that. We’re a tiny little slice of the pie right now, but we’re growing, and that’s changing the overall AMA model, setting them up for success in the decades to come.”

That’s a sentiment that Andy shares, and one that he hopes to see reflected in the broader AMA membership. “The important thing that the old-timers like me need to understand is that these guys represent the future of our hobby,” Andy said. “They want to build and fly and compete, just as we do—and they are flying what ultimately amounts to a traditional aircraft, just with a different means of vectoring its thrust.

“I see in them the same passion, the same sportsmanship, the same interest in technology. These guys are true hobbyists, and they know how to fly.”
—Patrick Sherman


US National Drone Racing Championship



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