How to Be a Pro Drone Racer

Fly along with Rotor Riot teams’ quest for the World Drone Prix.

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Competing at top drone racing tournaments takes teamwork, practice, tinkering skills, a taste for speed and a knack for virtual reality. But according to Steele Davis and his Rotor Riot teammates, fervor for the lightness of being and commitment to fun are the real secrets to being a successful drone racer.
 A relaxed, open mind makes for a faster pilot.

“I try not to take competition or life too seriously,” Davis said as his team prepared to compete against 100 racing teams in the qualifying rounds at the World Organization of Racing Drones Prix in Dubai 2016.

“I like watching funny videos and goofing off with my friends. If you take things too seriously, what’s the point?”

That keeping-it-real state of mind helped Davis and his teammate Chad Nowak finish the in the top 10 in the round of 32 teams competing in the World Drone Prix.

At the event, the largest global drone race to date, with a prize pool totaling US $1 million, the biggest sum yet for drone racing, drones take to the skies March 11-12.

Commissioned by the crown prince of Dubai, Hamdan Bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, a drone racer and adventure sports enthusiast, the race’s global breadth and investment are proof that professional drone racing has hit the big time.

To make it to Dubai, teams had to win qualifying events, which were held in Los Angeles, South Korea, Germany and cities across China. Teams include a pilot to control the drone, a navigator to communicate the surroundings of the drone, a technician to keep the aircraft running, a pit stop leader and a team manager.

The competition evolves from rounds of 32 teams down to 16, two semifinals of eight teams, then the finals to determine the winner.

Members of Rotor Riot shifted pilots and roles to create three different competing teams: Rotor Riot Steele, Rotor Riot Nowak and Charpu FPV (led by Rotor Riot pilot Tommy Tibaja). Even though they pilot races as individuals – they could face one another in the final four – knowledge is shared openly across teammates.

The qualifying track is indoors and is one-third the size of the main outdoor finals track. Kept somewhat secret until the tournament began, the main track was rumored to have moving gates, special lanes and special bonus obstacles. The 591-meter outdoor aerial course was custom-built to challenge the world’s top drone pilots, and according to organizers, there has never been a more tech-infused course.

Womak said the difference between the small indoor and huge outdoor tracks in Dubai was major challenge for all pilots, requiring a different type of drone build or modification so the drone is optimally tuned for each track. Not to mention that Dubai was experiencing the worst rain storm in the past 10 years, making it tough for pilots to even practice.

“Ultimately it comes down to the pilot and his or her ability to adapt to uncontrollable variables like weather (wind), track dynamics and radio frequency signal interference,” said Nowak.

Eye on the Prize with Teamwork

Snatching some of the $1 million prize money would be nice, but most of Rotor Riot’s attention focuses on fun.

“I love meeting up-and-coming flyers,” said Davis who, at 26, is slightly younger than the average drone racer.

“There are kids here at Dubai that are serious competitors at only age 14,” he said.

“What’s really awesome about this race is that all of us get to meet people we’ve known online for years but are only here seeing each other in person for the first time.”

Davis will use a Dubai Edition Team BlackSheep Crossfire, which he said provides excellent R/C range, something that will come in handy to tackle the most challenging track ever built.

The Rotor Riot teams are using 260-270MM quad copters, which is the diagonal span from one propeller motor across the body to the next propeller motor. Each propeller is six inches long and made of glass reinforced nylon. The drones are equipped with cameras, electronic speed controllers, rechargeable batteries, flight controllers programmed using a laptop, and powered by three motors capable of reaching 36,600 revolutions per minute at full throttle.

Always immersed in the moment, Rotor Riot team members are fond of friendly pranks and mischief. Davis, in particular, is notorious for his spontaneous syllogisms that freeze time for a split second while teammates hover around his words looking for simple or deeper meaning before erupting in laughter. It’s become a signature of their YouTube series.

Davis, known as “Mr. Steele,” is an electronics engineer who worked in a hobby shop for years and has a vast knowledge of remote control technology.

His teammates include Australian Chad Nowak, aka “FinalGlideAUS,” who started out competing in full-sized glider planes; Carlos “Charpu” Puertolas is an expert in FPV drones; and Tommy “Ummagawd” Tabajia is a well-known DJ in the Hollywood, Pasadena and Las Vegas club circuits.

Rotor Riot came together in 2015, when executive producer Chad Kapper of Flight Test fame pulled together these four eclectic drone pilots to star in a new drone lifestyle video series on YouTube.

Rotor Riot brings drone fans along for the ride as they share tips and tricks, but the real magic comes through their whimsical, intelligent commentary and genuine comradery.

Tips for Future Drone Racers

Davis’ first drone was a Team Black Sheep Discovery Pro, a bigger and heavier drone compared to multirotor drones he builds and flies now. He’s only been flying drones for a couple of years, moving from 3D helicopters to multirotors — UAVs powered by multiple propellers.

“I’ve built more drones than I can remember.” he said. “Many are the same exact model but with different specs for different purposes, like track racing or freestyle flying.”

His yaw, pitch and rolls are more than drone maneuvers, they’re forms of self-expression for Davis.

He also likes to keep his hardware as clean and simple as possible.

“A messy build leads to a part failure, which leads to a system failure, which leads to a crash, potentially costing me a lot of time and money,” Davis said.

Davis is also diligent about training and a bit rebellious. He flies up to 40 three-minute runs each a week and avoids spending time watching other people’s videos.

“I have always been an innovator and to do so you need to keep your mind open and free from conformity,” Davis said. “My advice to someone just starting out is to spend time getting to know other people who love this hobby.”

Nowak said that in Dubai, hijinks and pranks are part of every moment on and off the track.

“Every racer here is here for the fun of it and to build friendships around our common interest in flying.”