Drones Over Dallas: My Day at the Drone Wars

Drones have earned a pretty bad reputation, but drone enthusiasts want to show the other side of their unmanned aerial hobby. Also some of them want you to stop calling them drones.

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Dec 21 2015, 10:10pm

Photo by Jonathan Auping

Marshall Mann had trained for this moment. After hundreds of hours on a simulator, it was mostly just muscle memory, but he had to remain calm. When rules are broken in drone combat, things can go south quickly.

Mann, 14, was the defending champion at the second annual Drone Wars, an obstacle course race held last month at the Cavanaugh Flight Museum, just outside of Dallas. He had dominated every matchup that day with his Blade Nano QX, a fairly standard vehicle for drone hobbyists. Defeat didn't seem to be on the table so, in his final race of the day, Mann's opponent chose destruction: the drone abandoned its course completely, hovering outside the final obstacle Mann's half-ounce drone needed to clear for victory, presumably waiting to crash into it. Sabotage was the only viable strategy.

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"Anything to promote the sport," Mark Chance said in response to my request for an interview before the Drone Wars began—although Chance doesn't use that particular term.

"I prefer to call it UAV, which stands for unmanned aerial vehicle, because the term 'drone' has such negative publicity right now. I even call [them] quads or hexicopters. I like to put it on the record, so to speak, not to use the term 'drone.' [It's] quad racing."

Chance had finished second in the Drone Wars last year, and seemed to know the lay of the land at Cavanaugh. "See that kid over there?" He pointed to a skinny, bushy-haired teenager chatting with his parents. "He's going to win the whole thing."

It was Marshall Mann.

Chance didn't seem overly competitive, though; he was just happy to be flying. A 58-year-old retiree with 30 years in the transportation business and a membership in the American Model Aeronautics Association, Chance has been dabbling in radio- and remote-controlled vehicles for twenty years. He's been flying drones—err, quads—for five.

"It's good, clean, fun," Chance said. He had a baseball cap pulled over his nearly shoulder-length hair. "This quad I'm flying right here is what you call a scratch build. You got to put all the components together yourself." Every minute or so, he would take a screwdriver to the machine and twist one way or the other.

Marshall's custom remote rig. Photo by Jonathan Auping

The Drone Wars were sponsored by HobbyTown USA, which also sent Tony White to the event to promote the kind of "good, clean fun" that has turned UAVs into some of the retailer's most popular products. White would face the winner of the competition in a bonus round, as a test his or her—though if we're talking about Drone Wars, it was overwhelmingly his—skills against a real expert. In the meantime, White was the guy to talk to if you wanted to buy, fix, or learn to fly a drone. In between races, he wowed the modest crowd with aerial tricks and showcased the newest models. At the HobbyTown table, a variety of drones were for sale, starting at $80 and about 18 grams; one popular drone, equipped with a camera, cost $1,300.

White also encouraged people to sign up for his classes at a local HobbyTown outpost on the rules, regulations, and safety considerations of operating a drone. For hobbyists who used to fly their drones without consequence, White said, "the days of blissful ignorance are gone." Starting this week, drone owners are required to register any drone weighing more than about half a pound with the Federal Aviation Administration. While the registry itself is controversial—the Academy of Model Aeronautics, for example, has told its members not to register yet (the deadline for owners is February 19)—most people agree that safety and accountability for drones is important. No flying around airplanes or airports, in other words, or through fireworks displays or into the White House.

The problem, according to White, is that when people order drones online or buy them from places like Best Buy, there is no education that comes with that purchase: "You could buy this, not know anything about airspace or anything about [drones], and just wreak havoc." He believes that any improvement in the reputation of drones is less dependent on legislation than on education. "'Drones' was a dirty word," he said. "It's getting better."

While we talked, White rang up a mother who looked up from her phone long enough to buy the small drones her two school-age sons wanted. After completing the sale, he turned back toward me. "See what I'm talking about?" he half-whispered. "She just bought those with no hesitation for her kids, who know nothing about them. It's kind of scary."

"There are people who give it a bad name," Chance said, still refusing to use the word "drone." "It's the proliferation of the quads that are coming out. The manufacturers are building them more and more so that they're plug-and-play, meaning all you have to do is plug a battery into it and fly. That gives them a false sense of security, and they foolishly fly them in places they shouldn't be flying."

If White had his way, the Cavanaugh Museum's obstacle course race would be called something else; he considers his products family-friendly gifts, and "Drone Wars" can call to mind the far more devastating uses of military-built UAVs. "They're marketing on the fear of it," he said with an embarrassed shrug. White reluctantly allowed that the head-to-head competitors share the final obstacle, making it a "war" to get through that last ring, but at the end of the day, "it's media hot words," he said. "Every news [outlet] picked up on it because you said two hot words."

A drone snagged in the netting is freed to drone again. Photo by Jonathan Auping

The Drone Wars took place inside an 11,000 square-foot hangar at the Cavanaugh Museum. The course was made up of rings, old airplane parts, and missiles from World War II and the Korean War—a slew of old war relics to be navigated by symbols of the future.

The tournament followed a one-on-one, best-of-three format: two drones raced, side by side, through identical courses that shared a final ring as the finish line; first through the ring wins. If a participant had to leave his designated standing space to, say, get his drone untangled from the surrounding protective net, he would have to start the course over. The winner moved on to the next round of his respective tournament; there were beginner, intermediate, and expert divisions, averaging eight contestants each. Each pilot chose a moniker, like Alpha, G-Man, Red Eye Dog, and Scarecrow.

Drone Wars is small potatoes compared to first-person-view, or FPV, races, in which pilots use goggles streaming a real-time view from cameras mounted on the drones to navigate courses at speeds of 60 miles an hour or more. FPV races are still relatively rare, however, so Drone Wars is just about the only place for enthusiasts in North Texas to get out and compete.

The beginner's tournament kicked off, coincidentally enough, with the two adolescent boys who had bought their drones from White moments earlier. Watching a parent teach her child how to drive in an empty parking lot would have been more exciting. Most of the audience—a lot of children and a smattering of veterans and former pilots—stayed through the excruciating ordeal. Some left, unable to watch the two boys struggle to simultaneously direct their drones forward and keep them airborne. After defeating three separate competitors, Tony White's son, who flew under the moniker Alexman, walked away the champion of the beginner's division.

Marshall Mann waited calmly for his turn to participate in the expert bracket. He got the itch to fly when he was just nine, and started with a computer simulator. He could crash. He could try new tricks and makes mistakes. It was preparation for when he got his first drone at age 13. "I want to be a pilot," Mann says. "I'm looking at being a commercial drone pilot or [a drone pilot] for the Air Force or creating my own business and doing aerial photography."

Mann knows that drones can be used in destructive ways, but he's more focused on their potential. "It's already a huge market and industry and it's only going to get bigger, and it's going to create new jobs in the coming future," he told me. "There could be thousands more uses for them. They're coming up with new ones every day, from spraying crops to inspecting power lines to racing."

In between races in the intermediate bracket, Mann amused the crowd with a drone that he created himself, dressed to look like a ghost. It flew around the hanger while the crowd cheered. A few weeks earlier, he scared trick-or-treaters with it. "I just call it Ghost Drone," he said into the microphone.

Suitable for...putting someplace. Photo by Jonathan Auping

Eventually it was time for Mann to defend his Drone Wars title. He faced Chance in the first round. Mann's moniker was Tomahawk. Chance's was Yardner.

Chance had a respectable first run. Standing in his designated area, he toggled the controls on his remote, weaving his "scratch built" drone around the row of World War II missiles. He guided it through a series of elevating loops before, slowly and carefully, he reached the highest, and most difficult, point of the course: a large, upright metal tow built to hang from the back of an airplane and absorb bullets from enemy fire. At its highest point was a ring roughly the size of a mini-fridge. This was the altitude test. You were pretty much guaranteed at least a golf clap from the crowd each time you cleared this portion of the course, as Chance did ever so skillfully. He then proceeded to weave through some stationary propellers on his way to the finish line.

Unfortunately, by the time he was halfway through the course, Mann's drone was waiting for him on the other side of the final ring. He'd sped through with ease. The second race was no different. It was then, one loss away from elimination, when Chance decided to switch up his strategy.

"This is Drone Wars, isn't it?" Chance yelled to the crowd, using what he had earlier deemed a taboo word. He then drove his drone straight to the final ring and waited for Mann. The crowd hollered.

Mann's drone approached about half a minute later. As the two drones stared each other down, Chance's touched the bottom of the ring, causing it to stumble out of control, bouncing off the numerous bars holding up the ring until it violently landed on the ground. Mann glided through to victory.

I caught up with Chance afterward. "I figured people would get a kick out of it," he said. "Marshall's a real good kid. I never would have crashed his." He had sabotaged himself.

Mann breezed through the third and final round in a clean sweep over a drone called Creeper. As the champion, he earned the chance to face off against Tony White, who had been entertaining the crowd between races with tricks and stunts from various drones.

Mann's mother turned to me as her son face off against the suddenly competitive White. "I can't watch. I get too nervous," she said. "He's cool as a cucumber." Mann won the first race. Then the second, easily. In the third race, White copied Chance's defense strategy, but the mood at the Cavanaugh hangar was different this time. White had looked legitimately frustrated against Mann, and now he was ready for payback. As Mann's drone approached faked one way and then went another. White drone hit the ring, like Chance's, and crashed to the floor.

The 14-year-old didn't lose a single race that day. In an event that was largely given over to competitors picking their drones off the ground or untangling them from the netting, Mann's never even touched an obstacle.

Mann is probably right that drones are the future, for better and worse. Perhaps, someday, they could be his career. In November, though, Marshall Mann walked out of Drone Wars, climbed into the family car with his mom, his dad, and his sister and was dropped off at a friend's house for a sleepover.