The sight and sound of expensive drones crashing into each other and nosediving to the ground can be jarring -- except when the mid-air collisions are encouraged as a desired result.
That was the case this past weekend in zone four of the World Maker Faire 2015 outside the New York Hall of Science. A few hundred people clamored around a large enclosed net, cheering on the clanging and banging of two high-speed drones flying in the air. An announcer, with microphone in hand, riled up the raucous crowd with animated play-by-play of the remote-controlled aircrafts angling around each other for a big hit.
Just then one drone smashed into the other, breaking a chunk of its competitor's propeller right off, as it crashed to the ground. Some people in the crowd groaned and looked away at the sight of such technology being dispatched like that.
But it's okay. This is Game of Drones — as part of the Aerial Sports League — where combat is the main intention and crowds are encouraged to yearn for contact as if they are cheering on some type of bloodsport.
However, just as quick as these drones could dish out the pain, they can take it, too. That's because the drones used in this league aren't just any high-tech, delicate drones. No, these drones are indestructible and made to battle at high speeds.
"They're made of a military-grade polymer that's literally bulletproof to a point," Marque Cornblatt, founder and CEO of the Game of Drones within the Aerial Sports League, tells Tech Times.
Cornblatt was inspired to pit drones against each other in 2011, when he and his friends—all robot makers and inventors—would meet in the San Francisco area and hold informal battle bot Friday nights. When they decided to bring drones into the fold, they realized that the over-the-counter aircrafts available were too lightweight and fragile to survive combat.
"My partner, Eli [Delia], and I decided to build a better mousetrap," Cornblatt says. "We needed a drone airframe that could take all the abuse and therefore protect all the components on the inside, so we spent the next year or so, really working to develop that under the name Game of Drones."
Once they pinpointed a hardened polymer material to be used as the base, Cornblatt and Delia took to YouTube to post viral videos of them putting the drones through torture tests including shooting them with a shotgun and smashing them with baseball bats.
The videos garnered enough online attention to prompt the public to ask them to start a Kickstarter campaign to sell their rugged drones. Cornblatt and Delia did just that, selling their Game of Drones Action Sports DIY Kit for $410 to $420.
"We sold a lot of these drone airframes and when we came out the backside of that, we realized that we had a real viable business—not just with indestructible drones, but drones for combat and drones for sports," Cornblatt says.
Last year, they incorporated their Aerial Sports League—which essentially absorbed Game of Drones—sparking head-to-head competition with over a 1,000 members via 12 different chapters globally. The Aerial Sports League also includes a standard First-Person View (FPV) drone racing, which has pilots wearing virtual reality goggles, giving them a cockpit perspective as if they're in the drone racing. That format is the more prevalent one with a New York startup, The Drone Racing League, even getting a $1 million investment from Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross's RSE Ventures firm last month.
But what makes the Aerial Sports League stand out is its Game of Drones contact league. How the actual combat works is simple. Each combatant starts out with three points each. Each time your drone hits the ground and can't get back up or gets caught in the net, you lose a point. The first person to reach zero is eliminated.
If you knock a drone down and you hit the ground as well, if you can get back up within three seconds, it's considered a touch and go, so in that final point you have to make a clean kill on your opponent's aircraft. When you do hit the ground or get caught in the net, you have 90 seconds to either fix your drone or get it out from the net.
"You're anticipating where [your opponent] is going to be, so as you think, 'They're coming over here,' you're trying to plant yourself there and then they move, so then you're trying to be a step ahead," says Reiner Von Weber, director of technology of the Aerial Sports League. "In the beginning, we used to go at it and bam, they would fall down. Pretty uneventful. We kind of came up with a technique, kind of a capoeira style like hit, but come real close."
Since the airframe is essentially indestructible, the propellers and zip ties are made to replace rather easily as really the only parts of the Game of Drones Hiro models that actually need repairs.
"What you notice during the combat is the propeller or some other component—maybe a zip tie—might come off, but we designed it with no hardware, so when the zip tie pops you might put another zip tie on it and go, which lets you make repairs in the middle of the game in under 90 seconds, which is one of the rules of the game," Cornblatt says. "If you hit the ground, you only have 90 seconds to make the repair. We designed our drone with that in mind. What we end up with is a drone that even if you're not playing the games—even if you're just a cinematographer or filmmaker—you can use this drone in the field and know that it's going to come back with you at the end of the day, even if you have an accident."
The Aerial Sports League purposely uses large nets, which enclose to form their drone sports arena, to stay out of the Federal Aviation Administration's jurisdiction. Park land and beach area are off limits for drones in San Francisco with nooks and crannies even becoming hard to fly the aircrafts.
"We try to fly indoors and find locations where we have permission, but slowly but surely we're losing access to those spots," Cornblatt says.
The concern is so great that his organization also founded the Aerial Sports Foundation and is meeting with the FAA to talk about some of these issues.
"We see the drone hobby heading in the same direction that say skateboarding headed into a few decades ago, but we don't want to wait 20 or 30 years before municipalities open up drone parks and finally recognize that skateboarding is an OK part of culture," Cornblatt says. "We don't want to have to wait a whole generation. In fact, we expect to see these things to happen within two to three years the most.
"I see two, three, four years from now, things like [Game of Drones] happening in every town, in every city, in every municipality," he adds. "Drone racing on TV, huge arenas filled with drone sports...it's clearly coming and it seems like it's coming faster than most hobbies turn into a vocation."