What it takes to be a drone racer

Jason Krause

One cold, dreary afternoon in 2014, Jordan Temkin took his drone to Chautauqua Park in Boulder, Colorado. He put on a pair of goggles that filled his view with the live video feed from the drone's tiny camera.

He'd built the drone frame from scratch using a 3D printer, finishing it with parts he'd bought online. It took about a month for it to take off straight. Eventually, it could hover around his backyard, so one day he took it to the park and began gingerly flying around.

You can still find the video feed of this first flight on YouTube. Temkin flies slowly and carefully at first, meandering around the asphalt path. But before long, he flies the drone up, over and then around a rocky peak before diving toward the ground and pulling up a split second before disaster.

At one point, Temkin appears in the video, sitting on the asphalt path as the drone loops around. "It really felt like I was flying," he said. "I put on the goggles, and it's like your consciousness is transferred into this drone. It's especially weird when you're flying around a park and you see some guy sitting there with a pair of goggles and you're like, 'Who the hell is that? Oh, it's me.'"

Temkin isn't alone in describing flying as an out-of-body experience -- it's a common feeling for first-person view (FPV) pilots. Total freedom. Flying like Superman.

He was only 22 at the time of that first flight. Three years later, he hasn't stopped flying drones. In fact, he now gets paid to fly drones every day, and he's arguably the best drone racer in the world. That's not hyperbole: In a sport that's only a few years old, he's dominated the most high-profile competition. Twice.

Temkin likes to say he is getting paid to play with toys. He's made hundreds of thousands of dollars in races from London to Dubai. Drone racing has made him some quick cash, but is it really a living?

Like professional gamers, drone racers use pseudonyms. Temkin's racing name is Jet, an acronym of his name, Jordan Eiji Temkin. He rents an unassuming ranch house outside Fort Collins, Colorado, with fellow FPV racers Zach Thayer (A_Nub) and Travis McIntyre (m0ke). He moved to Fort Collins in part because authorities in Boulder had been putting up signs outlawing drone flying in public places, including Chautauqua Park.

For the trio, the selling point of this house was the wide-open backyard. The interior is littered with broken drones, airframes, batteries, propellers, racing trophies and not much else. The basement carpet looks like a used-drone sales lot, with row after row of drones, many of them smashed and broken. There's an audio-visual studio for producing videos for their various YouTube channels and a spare room in the basement where visiting drone pilots can stay. A cutting tool in the garage is used for making prototype drone frames, and a small room in the basement is dedicated to storing frames, which Temkin and Thayer sell under the brand Shrike.

"They're doing more than just flying the drones. They're developing their own drones; they're working on the hardware."

The title of professional drone racer sounds like the cushiest job in the world: Get out of bed, go fly a drone. But unlike most other sports, it demands a high level of engineering skill. "Some people think of drone racers as early skateboarders, where they are finding empty pools and are just skating anywhere they can," said Nick Horbaczewski, CEO and founder of the Drone Racing League. "[But] these guys are very sophisticated. They're doing more than just flying the drones. They're developing their own drones; they're working on the hardware. This is his profession, it's his hobby. It's where he lives."

Temkin and Thayer, who won last year's U.S. National Drone Racing Championship, fly with a team of local pilots under the name Team Big Whoop. Since drone racing isn't a team sport (although some leagues hope to make it one), Big Whoop is just a bunch of guys in Colorado with a passion for flying, racing and building drones. On days off, they set up soccer goals (sans netting) and use them as racing gates. Other obstacles work just as well -- the team also improvises race courses that involve trees in the yard. "The neighbors probably hate us on days when we're flying, because we fly for hours," said Temkin. "On other days, we go up to the mountains, where we can fly a thousand feet up and down the cliffs in seconds."

Temkin, Thayer and McIntyre (from left-to-right), fly their drones on a clifftop.

Before moving in with Thayer and McIntyre, Temkin flew his drone alone for the better part of a year. He was working three jobs while a full-time student, flying drones in what little spare time he had. A former competitive skier and serious mountain biker, Temkin said droning satisfies his need for speed as well as his love of tinkering. One day, he Googled "drones in Colorado" and found a Meetup group: the Fort Collins Drone Enthusiasts. The group still meets on Mondays at Lincoln Middle School to fly drones together in an open field.

Members of this group began going to drone races, but for the most part it was a casual community. That is, until the Drone Nationals in Sacramento, California, in July 2015. Though the event was called the Nationals, it was actually the first major international competition for drone racing, attracting pilots from across the globe. It featured a competitive course, A-list sponsors from the drone world and a prize purse of $25,000. More importantly, it was the first time so many drone pilots were all in one place. Gathered together, the pilots were able to geek out about gear, compare notes about their rigs and discuss their local scenes.

Team Big Whoop members Chris Fisher and Jessie Perkins, both regulars at the Fort Collins Meetup group, were among the first to sign up for the event, alongside Temkin. "We fell in love with the competitiveness and camaraderie. Everyone is a gearhead and wants to show off how cool their stuff is," Temkin said. "Skiing and mountain biking is the same way: Everyone talks about what frame they use, which grips, wax and all that. It's the same mind-set in all the hobbies I have: gear plus adrenaline."

This was Thayer's first drone race. While he didn't enjoy the racing (his video feed wasn't working right), he was immediately drawn into this new world. "Back then, racing wasn't really a thing. My cousin and I would go to park and just race around the trees and maybe through the gazebo, but that was it," he said. "But then I got to meet all these people who knew more than I did, and I got to see all this cool equipment. I knew I was home."

Temkin quit all three of his jobs around this time to fully dedicate himself to drone racing. His timing was perfect, because in the months after the Drone Nationals, the racing scene erupted. "I saved a bunch of cash and had enough to have a one-year runway," he said. "Then I won a few races, and it got extended to a year and a few months. Then I won a few more races, and a few thousand dollars here and there kept me going for even longer."

Meanwhile, Thayer quit his job as a software engineer. He and Temkin ran into each other at a race in Las Vegas and decided it would make sense for them to rent a house together. But on his way out to Colorado, his and Temkin's phones started blowing up. Before long, they and 30 other racers left on an all-expenses trip to Dubai for an event called the World Drone Prix. Only three days passed after their return home until they were both invited to Los Angeles to join the first season of the brand-new Drone Racing League (DRL).

Temkin hadn't been racing long, but he had won enough races and, maybe just as important, impressive videos of his flying on YouTube. The DRL season had already started when he and Thayer got the call, but in drone racing, consistent wins are hard to ignore. "We watch videos and follow the races, and you can see talent rise," said Ryan Gury, director of product at the DRL. "These guys fly hundreds of packs every other day, and over time, the skill level becomes obvious."

Temkin arrived for the third race of the season and got third place, followed by a second-place finish in the fourth race. He didn't win a race before the finals, but according to the rules of the competition, any pilot that made the podium (i.e., finished in the top three) went to the finals. "I definitely peaked at the right moment," he said. "At the time I was like, 'I am out of money. The runway has passed, and I might have to get a job now.' Thank God I won."

Zach Thayer working on a drone at the Big Whoop house.

The prize for winning season one was a contract offering Temkin a six-figure salary as an employee of DRL. He accepted but still lives frugally -- that penny-pinching attitude is a necessity in order to survive as a professional drone racer for as long as possible. "My parents taught me pretty well about how to budget. They gave me an allowance for a year and said, 'If you want to make this last, you have to make this go to the end of the year,'" he said. "It's the same principles I learned as a kid. If I want this to last, I had better stretch it as far as possible."

Season two didn't start the way Temkin wanted. He failed to make the podium in either of the first two events -- but Thayer finished second in one of the races. Temkin said the early frustrations led him to do something he normally doesn't do during the season. "I got bummed and actually started practicing -- a lot," he said. "Normally we don't practice a lot during the season. We have a philosophy that if you're in tune with your drone, racing is easy, because you feel it."

Gabriel Kocher (Gab707) won the opening event and led in points for most of the season. But Temkin found his form at the third contest in New Orleans, rising above the rest to take first place. By the championship race, held at the Alexandra Palace, in London, Temkin was once again in contention to win the title, but still trailed Kocher.

Temkin won the race and the title by passing Kocher while flying through the last loop on the last lap of the last race. But it was no accident the race came down to the final moments. As Temkin put it, drone racers are like horses with blinders -- and no brakes. FPV pilots only have a limited field of view, seeing only what their drone camera sees while pointing straight ahead. Flying behind an opponent can give racers a huge strategic advantage.

Temkin admits he is not the fastest drone pilot in the world. He gives that title to Shaun "Nytfury" Taylor, a 37-year-old former firefighter who won 13 of 17 major races in the MultiGP race circuit last year and the 2016 DRL World Championship. But other racers say Temkin is patient and strategic, skills he said come from years as a competitive ski racer ... and go-karting.

"You see a lot of people who are so fast but could be so much faster if they would slow down and do a proper race line."

Temkin said the founder of the MultiGP race series, Chris Thomas, insists on finding go-kart courses whenever he's with Team Big Whoop. "Racing is racing. A lot of people who race drones haven't raced before," said Temkin. "You see a lot of people who are so fast but could be so much faster if they would slow down and do a proper race line."

The fact that Temkin has won the title for consecutive years is not an accident. Other racers who have watched him fly say that he is perfectly consistent and relaxed, never losing focus during a race. They marvel that he's able to fly and crack jokes while outthinking his opponent. "The one thing that puts Jordan head and shoulders above other racers is that he remains calm," said Taylor. "The No. 1 trait of the top racers is how well you perform under pressure, and no one does it better than him."

We have an amazing experience to present to the world, but no one has figured out how to do it right.

Zoe Stumbaugh, drone racer

Thanks to exposure on ESPN, the DRL is the most high-profile FPV race league, but it's just one of several competitions vying to be the home of drone racing. The DRL is a small, closed league that takes elements of car racing, gaming and reality television to make drone racing into a TV show. The International Drone Racing Association sponsors live events like the Drone Grand Prix in Dubai, while other leagues such as DR1 will be televised on Fox Sports this year. Meanwhile, MultiGP has chapters all over the world and is open to anyone who wants to race.

Temkin races in as many of these leagues as he can, but that may not be possible for much longer. Taylor dropped out of competing in the DRL because he said it would have required signing an exclusive contract. Such an agreement would have prevented him from defending his titles in other leagues. "DRL is for sure the kingmaker, but I need to fly at all the races," he said. "The contract said I can't do that. It's not fair to my rivals if I'm not there."

There is not only a split between the racing leagues but also a division between people who race and freestyle fliers. Most racers do both, but freestyle drone pilots like Rotor Riot are often the most visible face of the drone community, thanks to slick FPV videos and trick flying demonstrations at drone races. "I know Rotor Riot takes credit for making the sport popular, but none of them race," said Thayer. "There is a real division between racers and freestylers, but everyone calls themselves racers. I think if you're a good pilot, it shouldn't matter what you call yourself. But it is a confusing situation."

"Any sport that's only two years old is a clusterfuck. MMA was a disaster two years in, so we've got time to figure it out."

These fault lines reveal the central identity crisis facing the sport. The DRL is planning season three, and DR1 is gearing up for its new season. But most drone racers still wonder how to define their sport and make it appeal to a wide audience. Is it the next BattleBots, or is it the new Formula One? Is it like pod racing or professional gaming? "Drones can go faster than a human body could go and survive. We have an amazing experience to present to the world, but no one has figured out how to do it right," said Zoe Stumbaugh, a former motocross biker and current drone racer. "But any sport that's only two years old is a clusterfuck. MMA [mixed martial arts] was a disaster two years in, so we've got time to figure it out."

While this is certainly a major concern for racers, a more pressing issue is money. No one agrees on how many professional racers actually make a full-time living out of flying drones. Temkin thinks four to five. Stumbaugh thinks it's maybe five to seven, and Taylor said three racers, tops. (It's at least three, since Temkin, Stumbaugh and Taylor all fly full time.)

Thayer and Temkin sell their Shrike frames as a small business out of their Colorado home, but they haven't yet pulled any money out of it. "We put some money into the business and tripled it, but it's just self-sustaining, so that any money we make goes back into the business," said Temkin. "It's a tough business. I imagine it's like fashion. There's this thing that's 'in,' you produce a crap load of it, then tomorrow no one wants it."

As the popularity of the sport rises, the first generation of racers are under pressure to sustain their careers. "There are so many more people racing now. You have people coming out of the woodwork who are ten times better than you, but you have no idea, because they don't put anything on YouTube," said Temkin. "You have this 16-year-old kid who shows up at a race, and a lot of times the pressure doesn't mean anything to them, mainly because their mom or dad paid for their hobby and they have nothing to lose. I have something to lose now."

The few lucky trailblazers are under pressure to sustain the sport. Taylor said that he has been avoiding the local race scene in Albuquerque, New Mexico, because of resentment and petty attacks aimed his way. "Jealousy sucks," said Taylor. "Where I think I've failed is when I see some bad apples come in, spreading so much negativity. It's easy to knock someone down rather than look at yourself and work harder. Instead people are saying, 'Look at him, why don't I have that?'"

Sponsorships are rare in drone racing, and the purses for winning a race usually don't break the four-digit mark, unlike the multimillion-dollar purses that professional gamers win. Unfortunately, no one seems to have a good idea of how to make the sport more lucrative. "It's fucked up that [Temkin] had to win to be a paid racer," said Stumbaugh. "How about if everyone in DRL got a salary? Wouldn't that make more sense?"

As a spectator sport, drone racing is a hard sell. It's impossible for crowds to follow small, buzzing drones that whip around racecourses. The problem persists on television as well. "I went down to the local Chili's when a race was on, and people said, 'Oh, cool, drones,' but then they lost interest when they couldn't follow what was going on," Taylor said. "They just see red, green and blue lights. It's like, 'I think the red thing won.'"

The DRL has made the sport more watchable by making the drones slower and bigger. "By making the drones heavier and slowing it down, the racing gets better," Thayer said. "The thing is, I can't handle my fast drones to their full extent. When I'm flying or watching, it's so much better when you're neck and neck and can't pass -- all that stuff makes better racing. When you go to local racecourses, someone is always winning by quite a large distance."

Some race organizers want to take that idea and go even bigger. The new Titan Grand Prix Racing Organization hopes a bigger, louder racing drone will make for an even more exciting spectator sport. While most drones are 250mm across, the new GFD1 is 1,100mm across and is powered by eight rotors instead of the usual four.

Stumbaugh has a different opinion. She thinks the sport will only work if TV channels feature more FPV feeds. "When people see what we see, it's crazy. Show more FPV, and slow it down," she said. "No other sport can deliver this point of view. No other sport can fly through amazing locations at insane speeds like this. No other sport has so much potential."

One thing drone racing has going for it is Temkin. Unlike MMA, which seems to have a new champion every other fight, DRL's format favors good fliers. "We race multiple heats. It is a completely level playing field," said Horbaczewski. "One race is randomness, but Jordan is perfectly consistent. We want the races to identify someone exceptionally talented with a drone."

At the Team Big Whoop house, Temkin and Thayer were racing quads around the yard. Horsetooth Mountain loomed in the distance as the high-pitched whine of racing quads pierced the air for minutes at a time. Temkin thought something was wrong with Thayer's motors, but neither of them could pin down the problem. "Well, I guess we've got another late night," he said. But he quickly added, "I'm not complaining. I started three years ago. I did this TV series, and now I get paid to do this every day. So it's all good."

  • This article originally appeared on Engadget.