Meet the 19-Year-Old from Tennessee Propelling the Sport of Drone Racing onto the Global Stage
Drone Racing Makes World Games Debut
Earlier this month, the emerging air sport of Drone Racing made its debut at The World Games right in our backyard in Birmingham, Alabama. In what can best be described as a small-scale nearly silent disco version of a giant NASCAR race, drone racers from around the world gathered in the Magic City at Protective Stadium for two action packed days of competition, all on the hunt for gold. But, for organizers of the sport, there was a larger goal in mind: The Olympics.
Drone racing is a fledgling sport, only officially adopted by the World Air Sports Federation officially in 2018. But that doesn't mean that both the athletes and the folks in charge don't have high hopes for drone racing becoming an Olympic sport in the near future. In part, that's what participating in The World Games could mean. David Roberts, CEO & President Drone Sports Inc. and the executive producer of Drone Sports for The World Games told Southern Living on the morning of competition just what it means to be included in this major event. "The World Games are 34 different sports that are not contested in the Olympics currently…Basically all of these sports are being previewed by the International Olympic Committee. So this afternoon we expect the IOC to sit down and look at drone racing and say 'hmmm we like what's happening here, the drone racing is cool.' And maybe it will be included in the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028. We don't know. We'll see. It's really quite an honor to be among all the world's best athletes in all these different sports."
What Is Drone Racing?
Drone racing is a very unique sport because both male and female pilots race side by side, no distinction, for the same prize. It's also an inclusive environment because it's an Esport. Pilots of all levels of physical ability are eligible. For example in Birmingham, there was one pilot who raced her drone from her wheelchair.
Roberts explained the basics of competition for us as follows:
"Drone racing is an Esport where the pilot flies first person view with a camera on board that is broadcasting a signal to the pilot's goggles. So they fly almost as if they are superman. From zero to 100mph in two seconds," he said.
"It's really incredibly difficult to fly accurately through our 14 obstacles through the whole course in the whole stadium… The pilots are getting around the track in 20 seconds. So in one minute they complete three individual laps. Every aircraft has been hand built. Decisions made on how they're going to build it when the parts are purchased. The only standard that the pilots have to adhere to is 5 inch propellers and a minimum of under 250 grams. Other than that, every aircraft is completely different."
In this particular competition, pilots raced in qualifying rounds and filled out a bracket. Then with each round, pilots were eliminated based on times. Fastest times moved on and the final round, well it's simple. First one across the finish line wins.
It's a world where the adrenaline rush of a motor sports race meets the fantasy of a video game in real time. The pilots sit in chairs in a row, right next to their opponents, first person view goggles, or virtual reality goggles over their eyes as their drones adorned with colorful lights whizz throughout a stadium of obstacles at lightning fast speed. Fans in the stands can watch video feeds of what the pilots are seeing in their FPV goggles and with a turn of the head away from the Jumbotron, they can root for their pilot's drone on each lap happening right in front of their faces. The blend between the virtual and the real world makes this an experience unlike any other.
The other element that makes drone racing different from other motorsports is that each pilot is responsible for their own fleet of aircraft. They are their own pit crew. If a drone crashes into an obstacle or another racer, they explode. When the pilots aren't on deck to race, they are back in the pilots' pit area rebuilding their aircraft.
This special blend between science and sport is exactly why drone racing draws a particularly young crowd. That's why Roberts and others like him are dedicated to cultivating programs in schools and youth clubs across the country. They know it can create a space in sports for kids who wouldn't otherwise be included, and drone sports can open all kinds of doors for all kinds of future career paths.
"Our greatest aim is to engage students so that they may become more technically savvy, propelling them to pursue a more technical career, where industry needs them. We are posed to deliver on that very well, all through the joy of flight," Roberts said.
One pilot leading by example is a 19-year-old from Tennessee.
Meet Evan Turner
When drone racing made its debut at The World Games in Birmingham in July, one member of the two person team representing Team USA was 19-year-old Evan Turner of Maryville, Tennessee. As the sandy haired, 5'11 teenager walked onto the field of Protective arena, towering over many of his younger opponents, he smiled and lifted a hand and waved to the crowd. The crowd roared in response because it was clear that they were here for him. And if you have kids who are into Esports, drones, or drone racing, chances are that they know who he is too.
At just 19, he's the youngest champion in the Drone Racing League and has already won the championship twice. Turner spoke to Southern Living about how he found his passion through some quality family time. "I got into drone racing by having an interest in things that fly. When I was younger my dad got me a remote control airplane and that sparked a hobby that my dad and I could do together. We went out, we flew the airplane and we crashed it and then we had to fix it. So then I had to learn how to repair it," he said.
From there, at the young age of five, Turner was hooked to remote control planes. Then, at age 13, he got his first racing drone. "I kind of took those problem solving skills and that love for flying from RC planes, combined that with my competitive personality that I developed over the years of playing soccer and video games, and that combination of personality traits and passion turned into how I got into drone racing and how I ended up pursuing it as hard as I did."
Turner isn't just winning championships, he's setting the standard for others to follow. He's also providing a real life, real time example of all of the avenues that drone sports can provide. At just 19 he's not just racing in the DRL. Turner created his own company, Five33. He partnered with former Boeing engineer Armando Gallegos and started a business that sells all of the equipment pilots will need to race drones. "Five33 creates drone racing products. So the first, second, and third placing pilots you saw at The World Games were all using my frame that my company sells. We sponsor all of those pilots. And we make everything you need to build a racing drone." The warehouse for Five33 is right in Turner's hometown of Maryville, providing jobs for his local community.
If that wasn't enough, he also works for Beverly Hills Aerials in Los Angeles using his FPV drone skills for projects filming NASCAR, USFL games, movies, and TV shows. Having three jobs keeps Turner busy and on the road about two weeks of every month. When asked what he misses most about home, he had perhaps the most relatable of answers: "My girlfriend's grandmother's breakfast potato casserole." Shout out to Memaw, Judy Smith!
Turner and his three jobs are showing the rest of the drone racing world that unlike many other sports, there are direct career paths one can take when the racing is done. The Tennessee teenager understands the responsibility he holds and he knows that others in his world are watching his every move. "I love the sport so much. I take it very seriously to be the best role model that I possibly can be. Lead the best example that I can." He also credits the examples he observed in his own home. "It stemmed from a very young age of my parents instilling that in me and that you should always, instead of complaining about the way other people are acting, you should just act the way you feel is right."
He didn't make it to the final round of competition that night in Birmingham but he didn't leave the field in a huff. He stuck around to help the other competitors communicate concerns with the judges and to cheer on his friends. He was standing in the crowd snapping photos and clapping proudly as Killian Rousseau of France took the gold medal. "If I can do anything that puts a better taste in people's mouths about drones or drone racing, then I'm happy to do so. I know it can help the sport grow."
We'd say the future is bright for Evan Turner and we'll be rooting for him.