Drone Racing at MakerFaire – Slate Piece

I wrote about the new sport – and yeah, it’s a sport – of drone racing for Slate. I headed to World Makerfaire in Queens at the end of September, which was definitely the first time I’ve ever been out to Queens. (It takes a long time when you’re heading in from Brooklyn, as it turns out, though I’m glad the NYC subway has a flat fare).

Drone racing was a huge hit at World MakerFaire 2015, and it was fascinating to watch the public reception, considering that I’d only just become aware of the sports existence a year ago. Here’s hoping we’ll soon be able to bet on high-tech drone races in Macau and Monaco in the not so distant future. Check out the Aerial Sports League for more information.

Some bonus photographs from the event, which didn’t make it onto Slate:


ken loo profile golder

Kenneth Loo on the field. FPV goggles are at least semi-cool, if you ask me.

eli tinkering

Eli attaching a baseball to a Hiro battle drone,  since,  duh, what else are you going to do?

jason con drone

Jason fixing a drone before getting back into the race.

reiner and jason

Reiner is having some sort of strong opinion here but I can’t remember what it was.

fighting drones and kids

In which I experiment with action photography settings on my D600.

MakerFaire Day Two: Game of Drones, Flaming Octopi

dragon and ocotopus makerfaire
Flaming dragon AND octopus. As one does.

I spent most of this day at MakerFaire hanging out at the Game of Drones encampment, but got the chance to wander around the main show area again.

I left early in the morning, arriving from my place in Palo Alto around 8:15 AM, and quickly learned one useful MakerFaire trick: the Franklin Templeton Investments outlet in San Mateo was offering free parking to attendees, only about a ten minute walk from the event grounds.

You might want to remember that tip for next year. Why Templeton did this — I can’t answer that one, although it’s certainly not often that I harbor kind thoughts about a global investment firm.

Game of Drones kicked off another long day of vicious aerial robot battles, which were eternally well-attended. I think they’re really onto something here, judging by the rapt fascination of both kids and adults who showed up to watch the action and the well-delivered calling. I could see this being a highly amusing new road-show — like Robot Wars but a lot speedier.

The Barbie Dream Drone.
The Barbie Dream Drone.

A true profusion of UAV makes and models competed in the action, but my favorite was definitely the Barbie Dream Drone, made by Edie Sellars. I think I need to make a My Little Pony themed model for next year.

reiner freeing barbie drone

The safety net proved to be the undoing of more drones today, although the pilots were getting better at avoiding it. On the plus side, the crowd goes nuts when a drone gets tangled in the netting. Also, turns out a PVC tube with a toy gripper claw operated by string works pretty well for getting the UAVs down.

game of drones victory 5

The organizers of MakerFaire seemed to agree about the event: Game of Drones scored an Editors Choice award, which was presented in a delightfully country-fair analogue little blue ribbon. I wish them all the best. And hope to get my filthy paws on one of their Sumo quad airframes soon.

bow before thy flaming octopus

Turns out El Pulpo Mecanico gives the occasional show, with bursts of superheated flame coordinated to blippy electronic music. If you can’t get to Burning Man and are in fact opposed to spending $500+ to hang out with your parents and their friends while they drop endless quantities of acid, the sculptures here at MakerFaire may represent your next best bet. The El Pulpo operators occasionally give the flames full blast without warning, scaring the hell out of the spectators milling around the area. It’s very, very fun to watch.

glassblowing makerfaire

Glassblowing, blacksmithing, jewelry and more by complements of The Crucible. I am fairly certain I’d end up covered in third degree burns if I tried to imitate my favorite Skryim character in real life, but I’m glad someone does it. They’ve got classes on offer if you want to take your faux video game skills into the real world, and make some sweet swords or something. Or spoons. You could also make spoons.

Screen Shot 2014-05-19 at 10.20.42 PM

I managed to resist the urge to buy everything I wanted at MakerFaire, which would have been a hilariously expensive proposition, but this bronze giant squid necklace from Dragon’s Treasure was too awesome to resist. If you’re as fond of eccentric jewelry as me, you should check out their website immediately.

I was also very impressed by the biologically-friendly creations of Bug Under Glass, including beautiful butterfly wing jewelry. And framed beetles riding tiny bicycles, which is pretty much my idea of good home decor.

Here’s some more random-access images:

MakerFaire – Day One

makerfaire octopusToday, I went to MakerFaire for the first time. A two day event organized by Make Magazine and located at the San Mateo Event Center, MakerFaire is rather like the country fair of your technological dreams.

And far more fun than the state fair: this event features Arduino-powered robots, animatronic giant animals, flaming sculptures, and battle drones instead of butter art and depressed looking show rabbits. Burning Man devotees turn out in force for this with their work, and you’ll regularly be passed by a six year old riding a mechanical trilobite, or a bored looking teenager steering around in a felted, moveable, blue cupcake. It’s everything you ever imagined about California gloriously confirmed. Well, the good things about California.

It's armor for your cat!
It’s armor for your cat!

Steampunk cosplayers look regretful in the sun in their tight leather corsets, some guy is making the rounds with a robotic parrot obviously cannibalized from an errant Furby, and every other person seems to have engineered some strange LED arrangement with their hat.

cardboard bot

It takes a remarkably long time to see everything — my feet were aching by the end of the day, but it was worth it, as I took in robotic ship battles, the organic food and farming section, an endless array of 3D-printer startups, and an extremely alluring DIY shop where I (today) managed to talk myself out of buying anything. It’s some of the most fun I’ve ever had in a convention setting.

Further, I liked the vibe. Everyone was in a good mood, curious, and thoroughly enjoying spending a good day utterly geeking out over everything in sight. Lots of women in evidence too, both manning booths with their projects and checking out the show. If you’re looking for a geek event that does a good job of actually including everybody, this is it.

battle droneI went to MakerFaire thanks to the crew behind Game of Drones,which was able to get some friends and associates into the show for free. Game of Drones, as the title may hint, makes ruggedized UAV airframes that are suitable for unholy aerial battle.

The Game of Drones team had a big show at MakerFaire, running one-on-one battles every hour. The turn out was impressive: hundreds of people staring, transfixed, as small flying robots did their best to kill one another, or at least knock each other out of commission.

barbie dream quad

Everyone snaps their heads around when we hear the tell-tale buzzsaw noise of imminent drone death. It’s a ton of fun. I did not subject my Phantom and its camera gimbal to the tender embrace of the battlefield, but I’m hoping to get my hands on one of these ruggedized airframes in the near future.

netting-deathsThe netting around the battle arena served its purpose of protecting the many, many spectators that came to watch the action, but had the side-effect of capturing drones like so many hapless bluefin tuna. A big PVC tube with a knife stuck on the end had to be deployed. More than a few times.

Here’s a grab-bag of images from the first day of MakerFaire. Coming back tomorrow….