AJ Goin's hands are shaking after he crashes his AWK210 mini-quad drone on his second attempt at a new line he's just found at a not-quite-abandoned building (the old Decker Detention Center) along the Interstate 35 access road in the Design District.
It's not because he's just wasted hundreds of dollars; on the contrary, his mini-quad is a resilient little beast, made to withstand crashes at high speeds in racing or free-styling situations. He quickly replaces one of the four propellers and gets ready to go again. What's giving him the shakes is the adrenaline high he's on.
"It's indescribable. When you finally figure out a run that you want to do, and there are all these potential risks of running into bad people or potentially the police, or crashing your drone somewhere that you can never get it back from, the risks are pretty high," Goin says. "But that's where a lot of the fun is, so you just want to get that shot so you can show people how much fun you had doing it."
On this occasion, there was one police sighting, but it didn't materialize into an unfortunate encounter. A quick nod and wave sent the Dallas County sheriff's deputy patrolling the area on his way to more important matters.
In that way, there is almost a street art side to droning, Goin says.
"It reminds me a lot of the '80s/'90s skateboard era, jumping into people’s empty pools. You’ve got to get in real quick and get out and not cause too much of a scene so you can come back and skate it again another day. ... It’s kind of an art form in a way. It’s so much freaking fun to be able to feel like a bird and fly any possible place you want to and put these giant long lines together in places you could never see in a different perspective."
There are blurred lines between what is legal and what is illegal in the drone enthusiast's world, as laws and ordinances more heavily regulate the commercial use of drones than the recreational. Those state and local regulations often collide with FAA regulations, which are the final word in safety in U.S. airspace. But watching out for "the laws" isn't a big part of Goin's world anymore.
That's because, in Goin's new world, he's known competitively as Awkbots, a pilot in the Drone Racing League. The Aubrey native and Denton resident (until eight months ago) was discovered by the DRL when he started using drones to film motocross riders and events with the aid of quad-propeller drones he made himself before the drone boom began in earnest.
Concussions ended his time on the dirt track, where he raced motocross since the age of 3, but he still loves to be around the track. So filming the action, the jumps and the tricks became a budding passion. Little did Goin know that making the transition from racer to aerial videographer would steer him to what is now a career, remote-control steering a screaming hell-beacon through intricate mazes at up to 120 mph.
"In doing that, I saw videos of people doing crazy stuff: flying abandoned buildings, going through these tiny little tree gaps," Goin said. "That's when my mind started turning, and that's right when racing started gaining steam, too."
That was late 2015. His current employer and primary sponsor, Ready Made RC, took notice of his videos and offered to send Goin to his first competition in Hamilton, Ontario. After his first few races with varying but mostly positive results and a partial sponsorship from Ready Made, Goin found himself in a qualifier for the 2016 World Drone Prix, which was held in March in Dubai.
At the qualifier in February, he beat one of the few already-established names in the drone racing game, a guy from New York who goes by Zoomas. Goin said Zoomas was the one who took his name to DRL officials. The DRL, still in its infancy during its first year as a professional racing body, extended Goin an invite to its Los Angeles Level 2 event, which, in turn, also got him into the field at the World Drone Prix.
His career path darted upward like so many mini-quads from there. His team enjoyed, aside from the all-expenses-paid trip to Dubai, a fifth-place finish and $12,500 payday at the World Drone Prix.
"That kind of solidified, 'OK, this is something I'm going to be doing now,'" Goin said. "I just made $12,500 and got to travel the world. All right, this is a thing. This is not just for fun anymore."
An abandoned shopping mall was the setting for the real life-changer, though. That was the setting for DRL's Level 2. And it wouldn't be much of a story if the guy from Denton didn't haul off and win the thing.
"I was still getting over jet lag from World Drone Prix when we were racing Level 2 DRL in L.A.," Goin said. And after that win, Ready Made brought Goin on as a full-time employee, prompting a move to Columbus, Ohio, in April for him, his then-fiancée (now wife) Bailey and their three miniature schnauzers.
DRL pilots use first-person viewing goggles while remote-controlling identical "Racer 2" mini-quads with LED color markers so spectators and the TV audience can differentiate between the competitors. It's "spec-racing," which means the identical equipment doled out to each competitor by the DRL at each race measures the pilots' skill rather than the drones' performance.
A DRL event, at least in the league's inaugural season, takes 12 pilots and divides them into two heats. The six within each of the two pods do battle over and over, for a set number of runs, earning points along the way for their finishing position in each run. The top three from each heat make it to the event finals, and those six do it all over again, run after run, weaving through a track that usually takes just over a minute to complete, for the event title. But those top six pilots, regardless of where they place in the event final, also get to move on to the next level event on the DRL schedule.
But winning a level guarantees a pilot entry into the DRL finals, which went down in Detroit on Oct. 9 and were televised after the fact by ESPN in November. So by winning Level 2, Goin moved on to Level 3, in New Jersey, where he could continue to earn points and money, but was safe knowing that his ticket was already punched to the championships. He bowed out just shy of qualifying for Level 4 but was back in action at the former Cadillac stamping plant at the 2016 championship semifinals.
Goin was holding onto third place in his semifinal heat at the 2016 championships, despite crashing in the fifth of seven runs. He was protecting a five-point lead against fourth-place Zoomas, the very competitor who recommended Goin for entrance into the DRL, with two runs left. Zoomas won the next run, with Goin finishing second, despite being clipped at the start of the run by another competitor.
"I'm still a little salty about that," Goin said in a televised DRL interview after the run in the semifinals.
His lead and his hold on the third and last qualifying position for the finals had withered to two points with one run left. Though six drones still lifted off for the seventh and final semifinal run, two competitors were already into the finals, having accrued enough points to advance. Two others had no hope of qualifying. Goin had to finish the run and finish faster than Zoomas this one time in order to make the inaugural championship finals.
Instead, Goin crashed in the opening turn bank. Zoomas finished the run and marched into the finals, where a $100,000 contract to continue racing indefinitely would be at stake. Goin admits he choked. A guy from Fort Collins, Colorado, who calls himself "Jet" won the inaugural title.
"Massive disappointment," Goin told a DRL reporter for television. "I love this sport. It's all I care about."
Well, that escalated quickly, didn't it? For the DRL, it certainly did, and for both the league and for Goin, season one was just the beginning. If ESPN's purchase of the broadcast rights didn't tip you off, consider this. For DRL's second season, which Goin plans to dominate, Bud Light, a major league sponsor, is giving the DRL wanna-be with the highest score on its drone racing simulator a $75,000 contract to compete professionally alongside Jet, Zoomas and Awkbots.
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That competition has closed, but it points to the amount of cash that is flowing through this new sport that's not really in the same bucket as e-sports, but kind of is. Goin says whoever emerges to rub shoulders with the grizzled veterans of the trade will have a steep learning curve ahead of them when the DRL's second season kicks off in January.
"There’s all walks of life in this industry, but there is a common denominator," Goin said of the drone-racing community. "We’re all tinkerers, and we’re all very patient people. If you’re not, you’re going to learn patience quickly, because it gets expensive quickly if you don’t have patience. It’s typically a tinkerer or a maker that gets into this, but you have gamers, you have motocrossers, you have car racers — it goes all across the board, and generally the nerdier person is more prevalent."
Which brings us to Goin's avatar, Awkbots. He says it's because he's the social equivalent of an awkward robot. Maybe that's why he fits in so well with that crowd.