On May 10, Brian Morris, arguably one of the world’s fastest drone pilots, had only a few hours to prove that he was still the best.
He pounded PVC-style poles into the ground at Chapin, a dog park in Wichita that has a small corner dedicated to remote-controlled planes and a new, even smaller section for drones. The measurements for his poles had to be exactly the same as every other drone pilot across the world.
After he and two racing buddies built the track, he had to record his race on video and, because this was the final day and because he works an IT job from 8 to 5, lower his time before the sun set fully.
Drone racing is in its infancy but is growing quickly. In March, Morris’ team won more than $270,000 (60 percent went to his sponsor and the rest was split among the team) for a second-place finish in a $1 million prize competition in Dubai. In April, ESPN announced that for the first time, it would televise the national drone championships in California.
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“I’m trying to be at the top of the mountain when this thing goes crazy,” Morris said.
Although some races are timed and posted online, there are more races to travel to across the world. A year ago, Morris traveled to whatever he could find about once a month. But now he said there are a handful of options to choose from every weekend.
Morris has multiple sponsorships and, after he finished the timed race on May 10, he had to pack for France, where he would be competing the rest of the week.
“He is the fastest racer in the world,” said Kalyn Doerr, another Wichitan who worked on Morris’ team in Dubai. “He is consistently on the podium every race he goes to; it’s incredible what this guy can do.”
Teenagers with superquick reflexes and without day jobs will likely take over the sport eventually, Morris said. The one person who beat Morris in Dubai was 15 years old and pushed Morris back into the No. 2 spot on the current leader board, although he has more race medals than the leader.
This is my only chance in life to be the best at something. I’m 38 years old now. It’s pretty much all downhill from here.
Brian Morris, drone pilot
“This is my only chance in life to be the best at something,” Morris said. “I’m 38 years old now. It’s pretty much all downhill from here.”
Morris wants to correct the notion that he flies drones. Although that is the word the public uses, he thinks of drones as self-piloting. He flies a “quad,” he said, which describes the four propellers that pull his machines forward.
Drone racing is about 75 percent pilot skill, according to Morris. And a lot of that means practice and repetition. Morris wears virtual reality-style goggles that allow him to see as if he were a tiny figurine flying from inside a cockpit.
Because there is a lag of around 60 milliseconds between where the drone is and the video feed that arrives back in his goggles, what Morris sees is actually 10 feet behind where the drone actually is. So that means he can’t just react but has to anticipate where the drone will be, according to Doerr.
“To fly at the kind of speeds we do, the kind of reaction time required, it’s pretty difficult to do and pretty difficult to do consistently,” Doerr said. “It gets on your nerves.”
Doerr tweaks the software that Morris uses, so that its tiny, battery-powered engines can make 32,000 small adjustments per second, which gives Morris more control than other pilots.
Once the course is set, Morris pulls his goggles over his head, which Doerr programmed to play soundbites from the movie “Top Gun” at take-off: “I feel the need, the need for speed.”
Morris’ fingers toggle two small levers in what looks like a big video game controller as his drone circles a course that is slightly smaller than a baseball diamond, made up of a handful of poles he has to swing the drone around and several gates the drone must duck under.
Morris spent $800 on about 12 cameras the week before. Although each drone has only one camera, by the end of the week, eight were broken. His sponsorships cover many parts but not all.
He switched between smaller drones, which can duck more easily between gates, and larger ones, which are harder to squeeze through but can make harder cuts into the wind, the way big tires can help a car turn sharply, he said.
Soon after he started flying his drone under the gates and timing himself, he crashed one of his best drones into a puddle, a hazard of makeshift courses.
He had to find another drone and fast. The sun was already setting.
When other kids were out playing, Morris said, his stepdad would give him tasks to do in his shop. He learned to take things apart and, when he attended Wichita State University, he studied aerospace engineering.
Morris works a full-time job, races his drones until the sun sets, then works until the wee hours of the morning building and fixing his latest drone.
“It’s either work or quads,” Morris said. “That’s all I do. There is no life beyond that.”
“His house is not a typical house,” said Christy Vavra, his girlfriend. “It’s like a workshop plus a bed that you sleep on. I don’t think there is any place in his house that doesn’t have something drone-related in it.”
Morris gets by on only five hours of sleep, Vavra said.
Sometimes, she said, she wishes they could do things like a regular couple, such as go to the movies more frequently. But she admires how passionate Morris is and knows how short his window of opportunity might be. So she’ll go to the park just so she can be with him and, while she’s there, recharge the batteries or fix a propeller.
In return, she gets to travel with him and bring back stories to the middle-school students she teaches in Haysville.
Morris has about 10 to 15 drones of various sizes and strengths. He’ll pick one kind of drone for a slow, precise course, but different kinds for fast, open courses. His suitcase is filled with spare parts and beeping portable battery chargers.
About 15 percent of the skill comes down to the quality of the machine and its software, Morris said. The sport is so new and the technology changes so fast that Morris has to constantly scour discussion boards and websites for the most up-to-date technologies.
He can’t buy the kind of drones he needs to win, he said, so he builds his drones by hand.
“I don’t have anything older than three weeks,” Morris said.
Recently Morris bought a 3-D printer with the money he won in Dubai, so now he can build ever-lighter and more precise parts. He and his girlfriend will often spend Saturday nights watching the printer build a new part for his drone.
Racing requires constant mechanical tinkering during the races, like NASCAR, he said, because drones are always crashing, the parts are constantly failing, and they need to be recharged after every minute of flying.
After another crash during his May 10 time trial, Morris literally ran to pick up his drone to screw in a new camera so that he could get back to flying. But he couldn’t rush too much: If he installed the camera at too extreme an angle, he would see only grass. If it was too narrow, it would be only sky. A fast course requires one camera angle, a slow course another.
After about an hour, he had decreased his race time to around 38 or 39 seconds. But he needed to get it down to at least 36 seconds for a shot at first place.
A few spectators stood and watched Morris try to break the course record. The drones are kind of small and hard to see, so the champions of the sport have been experimenting with ways to make it more exciting. One way is projecting the fast-moving video onto a jumbo screen, but so far, the sport has drawn just tens or hundreds of fans to its events. However, it can rack up thousands or even millions of views online.
Even after the sun had set, Morris still didn’t know how fast his drone had flown. He had to go home and process the video.
When Morris finally saw his results, he’d managed to get his time down to under 36 seconds, but some unknown new pilot with the online handle “Ghost” ended up beating him by four-tenths of a second. Second place.
Because one small misstep in a race can cause a crash, the actual racing, he said, is nerve-wracking and not always that fun.
“One crash, and you’re packing up and going home,” Morris said. “That’s where the challenge comes from. One mistake.
“I’m the fastest safe guy there is,” Morris said. “I finish more races than anybody, not always in first but many times in first.”
But about 10 percent of drone racing is luck, he said.
Morris placed in the top eight out of 180 pilots in France in May. But then a single gust of wind blew his drone into a gate, the drone crashed, and he was done.