A drone is flown in Cesar Chavez Park, with Berkeley Hills at the backdrop. Photo: Seung Y. Lee
A drone is flown in César Chávez Park this month, with the Berkeley Hills as the backdrop. Photo: Seung Y. Lee

While kites floated silently on the seaside breeze at Berkeley’s César Chávez Park last Saturday, a lone black drone buzzed and somersaulted 30 feet in the air, until it came crashing down back to earth.

Several yards away, underneath a pitched canopy, Tom Jacobsen took off his goggles and slowly walked into the field of tall grass in the middle of which his crashed drone had landed. He showed no signs of concern over what may have happened to his hand-built drone, which cost him more than $600 and numerous hours to build.

“Trust me, we fly them so it can crash into the ground,” Jacobsen said as he searched for his drone.

Tom Jacobsen flies his personally built drone last Saturday. Photo: Seung Y. Lee
Tom Jacobsen flies his personally built drone in César Chávez Park on Saturday April 4, 2015. Photo: Seung Y. Lee
Tom Jacobsen flies his personally built drone in César Chávez Park on Saturday April 4, 2015. Photo: Seung Y. Lee

At its most basic, big-picture outlook, flying a drone is like a game of high-tech fetch: fly a drone, retrieve when it crashes, rinse and repeat. But to the fast-growing community of drone flyers and racers in Berkeley and the larger Bay Area, it is a highly addictive hobby that’s been on an explosive rise in the past few years.

“It’s an out-of-body experience,” said Noah Furhman, one of the organizers for FPV Racers & Explorers, a Meetup group which organizes drone races at César Chávez Park once a month. “It’s not flying like a bird or a plane. It’s closer to flying like Superman because you can move in any direction at will.”

The group exclusively flies drones with a first-person-view (FPV) camera attached to the drone. The camera is wirelessly connected to a pair of goggles which allows the flier to control the drone from its perspective up in the air.

The ability to fly the drone from its point-of-view as it somersaults in the air gives it a video game-like intensity unfolding in actual reality.

“The adrenaline can be so high it makes you shake sometimes,” said Scot Refsland, the lead organizer for the Meetup group.

Founded last July with about 20 people in attendance initially, the Meetup group has now ballooned to over 350 members, most of whom are men who work in the tech or IT industries. Due to its explosive growth over the past few months, the nature of the group morphed from a casual gathering to something more organized, with prizes and a potluck lunch accompanying every race.

On a regular race day, over 40 racers come out to César Chávez Park to show off their new drones and tricks. The group organizers set up an obstacle course throughout the park to challenge the racers.

“We chose César Chávez because it’s been a flying ground for kites and gliders,” Refsland said. “It’s sympathetic to people who fly responsibly.”

Although Refsland emphasized safety and responsibility as core values to his group, some members of the community have expressed concern about the noise level of the drones and overcrowding of a public park during the races.

“People go to César Chávez because it is pretty and peaceful, and I hear grumbles all the times when I visit the park about the drones,” said a Berkeley resident of 15 years who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. “Some are afraid to say anything because tech is so powerful in the area. Where’s the line going to be drawn?”

With rising popularity and attendance numbers, the resident hoped the city would step in and regulate the drone activities before they get out of hand.

While aware of the weekend meetings at César Chávez Park, the city has not received any complaints about the drones or the Meetup group, according to its Parks Recreation & Waterfront department.

(The City Council has expressed concern about the use of drones by the police, however. In February it imposed a one-year moratorium on the use and acquisition of drones by the Berkeley Police Department, even though Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan said the department has no intention of using drones at this time.)

Refsland, meanwhile, noted the various measures taken by his group to protect visitors and wildlife at the park. In addition to having spotters who watch for spectators or animals who might stray into the race-course, the group advocates for evasive action in the face of possible collisions — even at the cost of wrecking the aircraft.

Drone racers pose during their latest race on Mar. 29. Photo: Scot Refsland.
Drone racers pose during a race on March 29, 2015. Photo: Scot Refsland
Drone racers pose during a race on March 29, 2015. Photo: Scot Refsland

“If you are about to have a collision, especially with a dog, bird, human, or any living thing, think ‘zero harm’ first and do everything you can to avoid the collision and immediately divert your flight path even if it means at the expense of your own rig,” the guideline reads. “Living things are a lot harder to repair than metal and electronics and typically don’t require litigation to fix.”

While some FPV racers are now sponsored by tech companies, the overall landscape remains a very amateur one so far. However, the rate of growth in drone technology, exemplified by groups like FPV Racers & Explorers, has been exponential in recent months — to the point where individual racers may have constructed superior drones than the latest models from large-scale manufacturers.

The largest personal drone maker in North America, 3D Robotics, is headquartered close to César Chávez Park in West Berkeley. It was founded by Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired magazine, and Jordi Muñoz, an engineer from Ensenada, Mexico. The company now has 200 employees in North America and 30,000 customers, according to its website.

In March, the Federal Aviation Administration approved industrial uses for 3D Robotics’ drones — the first approval of its kind and a “watershed moment” for the drone industry, according to Andrew Maximow, the Director of Client Services at 3D Robotics.

Refsland and his group hope to be ambassadors for the positive benefits of drones, and they are spreading their passion by hosting events and conferences to educate their communities. On April 30, the group will host a racing event at Santa Cruz High School to introduce children and teenagers to the sport.

Meanwhile, for Berkeley resident Kyle Hicks’ 12-year twins, Callum and Reese, drones have already become a personal passion and a source for science education.

“Through drones, they learned engineering, budgeting money, and fixing things,” Hicks said. “By the time robotics clubs came to their schools, they were far ahead in skill.”

As drones become more commonly used in industries like agriculture and retail delivery, Refsland believes introducing drone racing to young people can be the first step in fostering an educated workforce well versed in maneuvering drones or similar unmanned aerial vehicles.

“It’s a perfect way to teach the kids about math, science, and engineering,” Refsland said. “Our unspoken mission is to foster our hobby and that the public are aware of what drones are.”

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