Drone Racer Alex Vanover Is Flying High | Dallas Observer

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Ace Drone Pilot Alex Vanover Is Still That Kid Who Wanted to Fly

Alex Vanover, an ace drone pilot, in the cockpit.
Alex Vanover, an ace drone pilot, in the cockpit. Mike Brooks
North of Fort Worth, on the outskirts of Alliance Airfield, a collection of nondescript warehouses is home to an assortment of characters who might fit in a Tom Cruise movie scene. These men are retired from the Air Force or from commercial aviation and could give Tom just the right homespun advice to solve his next dilemma. They have one thing in common: a love of flying.

Inside one of the warehouses are two small airplanes and a cozy upstairs apartment. A small dog peeks out the door. Alex Vanover is back home.

At 22 years of age, Vanover is one of the best drone pilots in the world, and coming home for a break is getting to be harder and harder. At 19 he became the youngest pro to tour with the Drone Racing League, a gig that has taken him across the globe.

On Saturday Feb. 4, Vanover will be back in town at Esports Stadium in Arlington for DRL SIM Live. The SIM events are simulated drone races and are booming in popularity. Without the expense of physical hardware, SIM events are a great way for newcomers to build and test their skills as pilots. Just hope that Vanover isn’t in your heat.

Flight simulators satiated Vanover's early interest in flying. As a kid growing up in an airplane hangar, plane owners would call him over to fix one thing or another in the small, cramped parts of their aircraft. The payoff? Flight time. First as a passenger and later as a student. Too small to see over the dashboard, little Alex would fly using the instruments and displays … just like in his simulator at home.

While most teenagers were looking forward to getting a driver’s license, Vanover was busy getting his pilot’s license. A driver’s license would come later when he started seriously wooing his girlfriend (now wife) Sally.

Drone racing is done through FPV (First Person View) technology. Racers wear goggles that show a live feed from the drone’s camera or a simulated feed in a SIM mode. Drones are flying at speeds up to 70 mph through a series of gates and obstacles. It’s extremely fast-paced, and the slightest error will end your race. For all the action inside the headsets, the pilots themselves are for the most part incredibly still. Nothing moves except for their beating hearts, twitching thumbs and unseen eyes. They are, in fact, in the matrix.
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Alex Vanover, the kid who wanted to fly, surely has taken flight.
Mike Brooks
This manipulation of physical objects though 3D- and AI-enhanced technologies is becoming a bigger part of all our lives — both in sports like drone racing and in entertainment. Alex’s racing skills have caught the attention of Hollywood A-listers such as Justin Bieber who want something special in their music videos. (Let’s not have the old “is Bieber really an A-lister” here, please). He has also been involved in major motion picture cinematography, flying over the swamps in Will Smith’s Emancipation. But if you really want to see Vanover showing off his stuff, you need to check out the behind-the-scenes video for Michael Bay’s film Ambulance, or Vanover's shots of truck racing on his Instagram page.

For better or worse, he has also attracted the attention of the Department of Defense. Some offers he has taken, but others just didn’t feel right, so he turned them down. One series of experiments in which he has taken part is the military’s attempt to develop AI-driven drone piloting. The goal was to develop an AI-driven drone that could beat Vanover and a few other top-flight human pilots in a race. Those early attempts were laughable failures, but the AI drones kept learning and getting faster. And faster. At this point, on a course they have learned, they can’t be beat.

“Unless someone happens to move one of the gates over by an inch,” Vanover says with a grin.

Vanover is matter-of-fact about all of this. His racing schedule keeps him moving across the globe, he is on a short list in Hollywood and he collaborates with the team from RED cameras to develop the next generation of flight cameras. He also custom-builds parts for other pilots, and Vanover-branded custom drones are probably part of his future.

It’s odd, then, that as I pull up to the hangar for my meeting with Vanover, there are no drones in sight. The only technology on display is a vintage, kit-built family heirloom of an airplane from the 1980s. Vanover is wiping it down with a soft cloth. He has just returned from a morning flight. Nothing special. Zooming around, flying upside down. You know, just to keep in practice.

When I ask him about the relationship between flying an airplane and piloting a drone, he says there really isn’t one. It’s a totally different skill set. As maybe the only professional drone pilot in the world who has a license to fly airplanes, he should know.

His answer is persuasive, yet not totally convincing. As he leans casually on the wing and lets me snap a picture, I can imagine that crew of Tom Cruise movie extra look-alikes standing in the background smiling and cracking wise. Crashing a drone can mean losing a race, or in Hollywood, a $30,000 RED camera system.
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Alex Vanover at home.
Mike Brooks
At 10,000 feet above Fort Worth, flying upside down in a 40-year-old relic has a whole other level of consequence. It's impossible to believe that the ability to do both, calmly and expertly, doesn’t inform his drone work. That’s not a perspective you can learn in a video game, and the drone piloting is just an extension of Vanover’s original childhood dream. At the end of the day, he is still the kid who wanted to fly.

See Alex Vanover and other top racers on Saturday, Feb. 4, at the Esports Stadium in Arlington, at 1200 Ballpark Way.
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Mike Brooks

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