There is a zen moment when you are flying a drone in the first-person perspective when the ground drops away and the camera stabilizes. There is a horizon in every direction, and the only question left is, “Which way do you want to fly?”
“It’s the ability to be in the pilot’s seat without the danger of actually being in the pilot’s seat,” said Raphael “Trappy” Pirker, the entrepreneur and enthusiast behind the Team BlackSheep drone shop and community. “You can travel places, you can see stuff from a different perspective. It’s kind of a mix of outdoor adventure and technology.”
Pirker, who develops and sells drones from Hong Kong, travels the world shooting familiar sites from new perspectives. You may have come across his closeup view of a fireworks display or flight around the Statue of Liberty. Team BlackSheep’s videos are daring — close passes over the highest point of the Golden Gate Bridge, long shots of dense city streets and breathtaking vertical pans of skyscrapers.
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It’s one part activism and one part obsession. Team BlackSheep has flown over mountains in Pirker’s native Switzerland and Austria. They have flown in cities where crashing a drone will land you in jail. The team’s first video of New York carries both a warning and a challenge: Don’t try this at home, but ‘Hey, look we safely shot this video and didn’t get arrested.’
In the end, it wasn’t a daredevil flight that landed Pirker in trouble. A promotional video he shot for the University of Virginia in 2011 earned him a $10,000 fine from the Federal Aviation Administration asserting he flew recklessly and without a license.
Pirker fought the fine. The four years the case dragged on coincided with both an explosion in drone popularity and meddling from the FAA. Courts have gone back and forth on whether or not the FAA has any say at all in small aircraft, but that hasn’t stopped the it from bestowing fines or cease and desist letters on individuals like Pirker for widely-varying reasons. Pirker finally settled with the FAA for $1,100 last month.
Last week was Pirker’s first time in the U.S. since the case closed. He was nervous to cross the border at all, let alone with suitcases full of drone equipment. He missed his first flight to San Francisco after he was held at customs. Agents asked him to clarify his reason for visiting the U.S. and then let him go. Hours later, he was flying a drone.
You only have to meet Pirker and the other members of the Team BlackSheep community once to realize they are adrenaline junkies. Twenty years ago, they might have chosen to pursue a pilot’s license (which some of them have), but unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, have opened up an easier, more versatile way to take to the air.
When Pirker flew his first drone 12 years ago, it was a model aircraft not much different than the radio controlled planes hobbyists had been flying for decades. But looking up at a flying plane wasn’t enough for Pirker. He added radios and transmitters and integrated faster, more agile drone bodies with goggles that display the drone camera’s view in real time.
“This changed everything. You’re no longer looking at the plane. You’re flying inside it. You don’t have the limitation of flying just around you,” Pirker said. “It felt a little bit like Superman.”
Last week, atop a grassy hill a half hour east of San Francisco, I slipped on a pair of Fat Shark-brand goggles and flew Team BlackSheep’s Gemini drone. It has six rotors — two more than a quadcopter — which gives it greater stability and the ability to keep flying even if one of its motors goes down. It doesn’t use GPS to lock its position, leaving the pilot in total control.
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“The focus is not on producing pretty videos. The focus is on performance and high speed,” Pirker said. “The motors are tilted forward. That reduces the drag of the whole thing. It’s much smaller and it’s more compact so it can turn faster.”
For the casual drone user, that’s intimidating. But when I lifted into the air, the Fat Shark’s low-resolution screen displaying green grass spreading out in all directions below me, I felt calm. With a first-person point of view, the dynamic of you-drone-ground disappears. Being in the pilot seat made me more confident of my movements. I stopped worrying about crashing a whirring hunk of plastic at 20 MPH because I couldn’t actually see it.
An adrenaline junkie does not stop at simply exploring with a drone. Team BlackSheep is actually a team — they are drone racers. It was a natural progression, Pirker said. You learn a skill and then want to turn it into a competition.
Below me on that grassy hill was a race course. Four flags and a bush designated a track that Pirker, Jeff Colhoun of Oakland, California, and Olivier Ancely of Miami, Florida, whizzed around with speed and precision that I didn’t dare attempt. Drones crashed into trees, the ground and each other. Parts broke and overheated.
That day’s race was more of a casual competition among friends, but drone racing is a serious sport. There are regular local and international races. A few days prior to my meeting with Pirker, more than 80 pilots participated in a race in Oakland.
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“It’s just really exciting to fly fast, to fly close to the ground, and to compete against your friends,” Pirker said. “Any movement that the drone makes you can actually feel. Your brain cannot really properly distinguish between being in the pilot seat or being on the ground. That’s why our heads are always moving or our bodies are always moving while we’re in the goggles.”
Pirker said it’s mostly drone hobbyists who find their way into the sport, but anyone who enjoys video games can appreciate it.
“It doesn’t really feel like you’re racing in the real world. It feels like a virtual reality game, more or less,” Pirker said.
Racing may become a more important outlet for U.S. drone hobbyists under new rules proposed by the FAA this month. The requirements said drones must be within sight of their pilot and a spotter needs to be close by if goggles are worn. The line of sight rule would put an end to the long range flights and many of the dramatic shots favored by Team BlackSheep. But Pirker said he is glad the U.S. government is proposing regulations, as black and white rules are better than gray.
“I guess in a perfect world there would be no rules,” Pirker said. “But we’ve all got to live with some rules.”