Sacramento can get overlooked in favor of California tech powerhouses like Los Angeles and San Francisco. But when it comes to the skyrocketing world of drones, Sacramento stands out from the West Coast crowd.
According to Brett Hoffstadt, an aerospace engineer, drone specialist and vice president of Drone Pilots Federation, based in the Sacramento area, the No. 1 use of drones in the capital is for hobby and recreation – racing the airborne crafts in first person view, or FPV, and using them for amateur photography and film.
It’s a hobby that has become so popular that the first National Drone Racing Championships took place in Sacramento during the California State Fair in 2015. It was thanks in large part to Bruce Parks, president and co-founder of DPF, which is a worldwide drone racing sanctioning body and an educational and advocacy entity.
In these races, competitors control their drones remotely, using video goggles that give them that first person view. It’s as if they are racing around obstacles and tracks within the aircraft’s virtual cockpit, all the while remaining safely on the ground.
Though the championships were moved in 2016 to Governors Island in New York City due to Sacramento’s extreme summer heat, the first installment drew 120 pilots, more than 60 sponsors and a successful live stream of events that reached thousands of fans.
“Once we did what we did in Sacramento then we stepped it up and created more exciting courses at Governors Island,” Parks said.
But organizers quickly realized drone racing doesn’t appeal as a traditional spectator sport, even with adrenaline-pumping courses. When sitting in the stands or watching on screen, the drones whiz by too fast, unidentifiable and too small to keep track of.
The code hasn’t yet been cracked on monetizing this form of competition, but Parks thinks that will change.
“When we can marry the technology to virtual reality, that’s when it will really take off,” he said.
He is confident that drone enthusiasts soon will be able to race each other all over the world using FPV goggles and virtual reality without the lagging radio signals and poor video quality currently experienced in live races. It will be leaps above modern video games and has been compared to real-life podracing popular in the Star Wars universe.
More than fun and games
But drones have a lot to offer society beyond racetracks and goggles.
Their use in education has taken off in the Sacramento area, though prevalent throughout the country at engineering and robotics-heavy universities like the nearby University of California, Davis.
Drone use in the classroom is now expanding at every level. Sacramento-based company Parallax provides robots and drones specifically for increasing STEM education in middle and high schools. Their website features tutorials and other resources for instructors looking to incorporate robotics into their lessons.
And if you’re already out of school, Sacramento still has you covered. Drone University USA offers classes to certify their students in different forms of piloting. No equipment or experience is necessary for registration. They train in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento, where they are headquartered.
Drones have even dipped into Sacramento’s entertainment and emergency sectors.
At the 2017 Super Bowl in February, singer Lady Gaga headlined the halftime show accompanied by more than 300 drones from Intel. They were illuminated and choreographed into brand logos. A software team that worked on the show was based in Intel’s office in Folsom.
“Intel is definitely the leader here in this region in those [entertainment] efforts. But Drone Pilots Federation actually organized and conducted a drone demonstration last year in the Golden 1 [Center] arena. Entertainment is happening here,” Hoffstadt said.
First responders have begun incorporating drones into their routine. Fire departments and law enforcement agencies use drones to fly over hazardous sites such as fires and crime scenes to get necessary aerial perspectives.
According to DPF, a few dozen first responders from across northern California came together in Elk Grove on Feb. 14 for an introduction to drones and their value in civil search and rescue missions. Parks and Hoffstadt were in attendance for the meeting.
“It was to bring the best and most up-to-date knowledge from the country into the region here to help them use drones effectively, safely and legally. Drone Pilots Federation is continuing to work with first response and public safety agencies in northern California to build a regional capability,” Hoffstadt said.
“I think that’s where you’re going to see the greatest initial uptake for the use of drone technology commercially. It’s going to be with firefighters and first responders,” Parks said.