I didn’t know what to expect as I pulled up to the Kawainui Model Airplane Field, one of a half-dozen “approved” drone and remote-controlled flying fields on Oahu.

After getting an email mentioning “drone races,” I just had to go to the Nov. 7 event. Turns out, this new sport is everything an adrenaline junkie could ask for, except there’s little chance of you plummeting to your death.

Drone racing is also becoming very organized, so much so that, not only are there scores of leagues across the globe (with several in Hawaii), the 2016 World Drone Racing Championships are already scheduled (and happening at Kualoa Ranch).

Orlando Paeste sits at table preparing his drones for races held at the Kawainui R/C Air Model Field near Kailua. 7 nov 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Orlando Paeste prepares his drones for races held at the Kawainui Model Airplane Field near Kailua.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In a large, fenced-off, grassy field, Geoff Newcomb, a local physician and organizer of Da Kine Multirotor drone racing league, huddles over a laptop surrounded by a pile of GoPro cameras, a funky new 360-degree camera, bits and pieces of carbon fiber, several “first-person view” video goggles, and a plethora of electronic doodads.

To say that drone racing is a sport for gadget geeks is an understatement.

In the field behind Newcomb and a dozen other drone pilots, flags stake out the race course. It’s an oval about 100 yards long, with a slalom at the far end and two low gates that racers must pilot their drones under.

“This World Championship is one of the biggest things going on in this community. It’s incredible that it’s going to be held here. There are racers coming from more than 30 countries, and we have great weather. Hawaii really is an ideal place for this sport.” — Geoff Newcomb

As Newcomb makes a safety announcement and covers the rules, I can’t help but marvel at the racing drones that look almost nothing like the typical consumer quadcopters, like the Parrot Bebop or DJI Phantom. Just like a Formula One car looks radically different from your family sedan for the four-wheelers, the only thing that makes these recognizable are the four rotors.

Orlando Paeste, a Honolulu resident and one of today’s racers, shows off his racing rigs with pride and walks me through the specs on one of his copters.

“I had the body of this one shipped in from Europe,” Paeste says with a wide smile as he sits between several drones and a giant remote-controlled helicopter (you know, like a regular helicopter, with one rotor on top, one on the end of the tail).

As I check out the engineering and liberal use of carbon fiber, I ask Paeste how he got into drone racing.

“I was inspired by some of the other pilots,” Paeste explains. “I’d been flying regular R/C helicopters since 2009, mostly acrobatic stuff, and then got into flying drones about a year ago. Once I saw the others racing theirs, I just thought, ‘Man, that’s cool!’”

Drones take off at the start during races held around a large course at the Kawainui R/C Air Model field near Kailua. 7 nov 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Drones take off during a race at the Kawainui Model Airplane Field near Kailua.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

As the first bunch of racers get set, I’m still unsure of what to expect. As soon as the race starts, my jaw drops. The speed at which these drones take off is incredible.

(Newcomb later says that, while he has yet to actually measure the speed, they’re probably hitting over 90 mph at full throttle.)

It doesn’t take long for the first crash, but after watching a few more races, frequent crashing seems to be part of the appeal. During one race, three of the four participants crash, prompting the announcer to say to the remaining pilot over a loudspeaker, “All you gotta do is finish the race!”

A few seconds later, another crash. I guess the pressure was too much.

(Newcomb later says with a smile, “It’s not uncommon to have a lot of DNFs.”)

Crashed Drone. A participant repairs broken rotor blades after his drone crashed at the Kawaibui R/C Air Model Field near Kailua. 7 nov 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A participant repairs broken rotor blades after his drone crashed.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

As a spectator sport, drone racing could easily become the next big thing. While races are in progress, anyone with a video receiver can tune into the cameras on any of the drones. Newcomb lets me try on his FPV goggles and I’m blown away.

You know how they have cameras in every NASCAR vehicle? Think of that combined with a first-person video game, and then strap it to your head.

It’s unreal, and it truly does give you the feeling of being in the drone as it’s flying around the course. I find myself leaning during turns, ducking as the drone speeds past the gates, and wincing as the drone inevitably crashes to the ground. I have a smile on my face the entire time.

Another spectator, Sam Stufft, tells me that he came by to watch and learn. He was introduced to drones through the Hawaii Drone Academy’s Wounded Warrior program.

“I wanted to try something different,” Stufft says. “Racing looks like a lot of fun, but I’m just getting started.”

When I ask Stufft how good he is at piloting his drone, he cracks a smile.

“I’ve got hovering down. And I’m starting to fly in squares, but I have to turn my body to face in the direction that the drone is going.”

As for the league, Newcomb says that it’s all for fun, but it’s getting more competitive as people gain experience. It has nearly 20 members and shoots for two races per month, changing the course every time. Another league is also coming to Oahu, Drone Racer-X, which is being started next year by the Hawaii Drone Club.

With the terms “carbon fiber” and “video goggles” being thrown around quite a bit, I just have to ask the racers how much money it takes to procure one of these definitely-not-toys.

Drone racing pilots wear goggles and use their radio controllers to pilot and fly the small drones around a course at the Kawainui R/C Air Model Field near Kailua. 7 nov 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Geoff Newcomb wears goggles and uses a radio controller to pilot his racing drone.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The consensus is “about a thousand bucks.” That includes about $250 for a do-it-yourself drone kit, $500 or more for the controller, and another $500 for the optional, but ultra-cool FPV goggles. Add several batteries to your kit as well (Newcomb has nine), since each one only lasts about 3 minutes, just enough to get through one race.

Of course, every crash breaks stuff, so having a box full of spare parts is another requirement. Blades go for $2 to $5 per set of four, and Newcomb says it’s not unusual to go through five or six sets a day. He should know. After his drone crashes during a race, not only is it caked with grass and dirt, but three of its four blades are snapped off.

In a nice twist, Oahu is actually the last island to get organized drone racing, according to Newcomb. And having the World Championships here next year (check out its Hawaii scouting video), and its $200,000 in prizes, can only serve to increase both the interest level and the appeal of Hawaii as a drone racing hotspot.

“This World Championship is one of the biggest things going on in this community,” Newcomb sasys. “It’s incredible that it’s going to be held here. There are racers coming from more than 30 countries, and we have great weather. Hawaii really is an ideal place for this sport.”

Sun, sand and drone racing. Who would’ve guessed?

About the Author

  • Jason Rushin
    Jason Rushin has nearly 20 years of experience in software marketing, consulting, and engineering, and currently works as a marketing consultant for high tech clients, both locally and in Silicon Valley. Prior to relocating to Hawaii in 2010, he led marketing at several Silicon Valley software startups. Once in Hawaii, he launched and subsequently sold his own startup, and has been an active supporter of Hawaii’s small-but-growing startup ecosystem. Jason holds a BS in Mechanical Engineering from University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University.