What it takes to be a drone racer

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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.”

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