Drone Racing Becomes a Major South Florida Sport

Approach and the first thing you hear is buzzing. It's like a swarm of food processors flying overhead. Look up. In the twilight sky, Tron-like flashes of neon turn circles, some stopping midair before diving close to the ground at breakneck speed. They're like tiny comets or steroid-stoked fireflies.

Suddenly, one of the darting lights does a barrel roll and stops midair. On a dime, it shoots down like a bullet toward a glowing hoop. It sails through and heads toward another. But the angle isn't quite right. A propeller clips the hoop, and it spins out as if it were a fighter jet hit by enemy fire. Then it hurtles toward the ground and crashes in a heap.

"Fuck," shouts a stocky, bearded 34-year-old Nelson Aquino, shoving a pair of white plastic goggles up onto his forehead. "Nobody fly anything for a second. I have to go get that."

Welcome to an event called Night Fly at Davie's Vista View Park, home to one of only five public drone-racing tracks in the nation. The kings of the park are unquestionably a group to which Aquino belongs — the Gravity Goons, sponsored, semiprofessional drone pilots who are becoming well known in the budding racing world.

Taken as a whole, the Goons are one of the nation's most successful racing teams: Of the seven men, five are ranked among the world's 25 best pilots, according to MultiGP, a Brevard County-based organization that holds races at local parks. Frank Mainade, a day trader, sits at number eight overall. Aquino, the group's most outspoken member, was tenth about a month ago but has since dropped from the rankings. OptiPower, a company that manufactures drone batteries, sponsors the team.

Drone racing is an expensive hobby — starter machines can cost anywhere from $25 to $100, and legitimate racing units can run upward of $500. Aquino, who is married with two children, says he has sunk more than $10,000 into the sport. "The highest number of drones I've owned at one time is six, but right now I have four," he says.

Drone racing took off around 2012 in Melbourne, Australia, where a group called Team Drop Bear began posting videos of drones passing through a Speed Racer-esque gauntlet of hoops, banked turns, and steep climbs. Spectators and racers watch from onboard cameras that make the experience feel like flying aboard an F-18 fighter jet.

Aquino, who is married with two children, says he has sunk more than $10,000 into the sport.

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MultiGP is just one of dozens of leagues that have sprung up recently. So far, the highest-profile is Manhattan's Drone Racing League, which has begun live-streaming massive, neon-lit competitions in abandoned stadiums and malls. Last August, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross invested $1 million in the league, which then raced drones through an empty Sun Life Stadium. YouTube videos show a series of neon hoops in the stands and light strips lining a few of the concourse entrances — during the races, the drones banked hard around the empty track, ducked out into the main hallway, and down into some of the field-level maintenance tunnels.

During the final round, three of the four drones crashed into pieces — one nailed a neon pylon and spun out into the stands, a second smacked right into a concrete wall, and a third, flown by a hotshot pilot named M0KE — racers use pseudonyms — slammed into a pole. "He is all out of lives!" the announcers screamed. The last drone won by default. (Earlier this month, ESPN announced it will begin airing drone races this summer.)

Florida has among the highest number of drones in the country, according to a recent study by Bard College, and South Florida has a particular concentration. Six months ago, Broward County, which operates Vista View Park just off I-75 at Griffin Road, installed one of the nation's first permanent public drone-racing tracks.

"We had people flying drones in parks closer to airports or some people flying them above people's heads," says Broward's senior park manager, Chris Deal. "Unfortunately, the sport has grown so quickly that people don't have knowledge of how to safely use them yet. So we created an airfield."

Aquino began flying drones because he grew up staring at the sky. He was raised in New York City and was obsessed with flying — "I was watching Top Gun, all these movies, and was certain I wanted to play with those machines one day," he says. So he enlisted in the Air Force and worked as an electrician on C-130 transport planes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Qatar, and parts of North Africa. "A couple parts weren't fun," he says. "We were some of the first people in Afghanistan, and we had to fly in and set up bases. You end up sleeping with a flak jacket on." Though he entered the military to "play with planes," he's upset he never got to fly any. "I took a maintenance job, and it was not as glamorous as I thought."

After leaving the Air Force in 2006, Aquino moved to Georgia and then to Miami. "When I got out, I played air combat games for a while, and then drones came along," he says. His first taste of drone racing came from a YouTube clip. "It looked like Star Wars," he says. "The drones were zipping through a forest. I was like, What is this? So it started from there. I went out and bought this tiny little toy." Through social media, he found a small group of guys he could practice with on weekends.

The first time he raced, he says, his hands started to shake. "One guy asked me to whip around a tree and come back. When I fly, I still get the shakes from adrenaline, even now."

The league Aquino now belongs to — MultiGP — operates "chapters" around the country, and he and his group of friends started one in South Florida. "From there, it just totally blew up," he says. "We have 90 to 100 people in the chapter now." They began practicing every Sunday, first at random spots around the county and then at Vista View.

From there, seven pilots, all men in their mid-30s, seemed to stand out from the rest: Aquino, Mainade, hobby-shop worker Eamonn Kelly, sales representative David Garcia, car-dealership employee John Crews, IT worker Mark Chirino, and Anthony Rosado, who is "between jobs." Most of them have beards and look like guys who play a lot of Call of Duty. (Aquino previously spent time trying to make it as a pro gamer.) They wear a lot of cargo shorts.

The men tend to hang out next to one another without doing much talking. The racers stand with their goggles over their eyes while the rest of the team stares at the video feed on a tiny tablet a few feet away. "Get it, get it!" they shout, egging their partners on, throwing their hands in the air as the drones crash and send parts flying.

At last month's Night Fly, Aquino's wife Margarita, a woman with dark hair, a bright smile, and round, soft eyes, sat a few feet away eating barbecue and talking to some of the other families. Their kids — 5-year-old Arianna and 4-year-old Adrian — watched nearby. Aquino says Margarita hasn't exactly been pleased about the money he's spending to race toy planes in a field with his buddies.

"She'd rather I be doing something else," he says, laughing. "But then Dubai happened, and she realized there might be something there."

In March, the Gravity Goons traveled to the Middle Eastern city, which sponsored the largest and most expensive drone race on the planet, the World Drone Prix. The most populous city in the United Arab Emirates spent $1 million to build a waterfront track that resembled a giant metal snake skeleton covered in hoops. Impressed by the Gravity Goons' flight videos, the government of Dubai agreed to fly them out, along with 31 other teams, for free.

"It was completely wild," Aquino says. "The operating budget must have been $10 or $20 million. They flew us out and picked us up right at the gate, whisked us right through security, through the ambassador's lounge, and through customs. It's Dubai — they want to be at the head of every future sport, so they threw a lot of money at drone racing."

Aquino says the Goons built a drone that ended up being far too fast for the course's sharp turns. About a week before the guys were to fly out, the organizers told them to build a new one. The Goons paid to express-ship parts in from all over the country. They bought frames, screwed wings onto the plane, and strapped a motor inside. "We basically had to build an F1 car in a week," he says.

The team lost in an early round. "We had to run it in first gear the entire time, and were way too conservative with it," he says. It was even unclear who had won the final round: After the judges spent some time debating which team had the "best" final lap, they announced that a 15-year-old from Britain had won $250,000. For the sport to really take off, the drones need to get bigger, and so do the stakes.

After the Night Fly crash at Vista View, Aquino picked up his drone, trudged back to the campsite, and stormed off, angry that he had crashed. But a few steps away, Robert Daubar, a goateed pilot from Sunrise, strapped on a white pair of goggles and floated a big white surveillance drone up over the racetrack to get a better view of the scene. He says he's been flying radio-controlled planes for years, but first-person drones are a different beast. "It's the closest feeling to flying there is," he says.

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Jerry Iannelli is a staff writer for Miami New Times. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. He moved to South Florida in 2015.
Contact: Jerry Iannelli