Arriba, arriba! Checking out drone racing's big day in Chile

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Pilots get some practice in at Chile's Drone Nationals(Credit: Nick Lavars/New Atlas)

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Parque Padre Hurtado is a massive park that sits right on the eastern fringe of Santiago, Chile, just as the sprawling metropolis fades into the foothills of the Andes. Locals gather here to hold barbecues, kick soccer balls, ride pedal boats in the lagoon and lately, fly unmanned quadcopters around at high speed. This doesn't sit so well with the park's administration, who have banned the activity and placed a sign at the park's entrance to that effect. But last weekend they made an exception to host the country's first major drone racing event, and New Atlas was on the scene to find out how this fast-growing sport is hooking hobbyists in the southernmost corners of the globe.

Just like in other countries, drone racing got its start in Chile at semi-clandestine meetups in parking lots and suitably veiled parklands. And now, just like in other parts of the world, professionally run events are legitimizing the sport at warp speed. The Chile Drone Nationals held over the weekend saw pilots gather from around the country, and even across the border from Peru and Argentina, to compete for one of five tickets to the world championships in Hawaii next month.

Alejandro Gatica, co-founder of Drones de Carrera Chile (Racing Drones Chile) and organizer of his country's first national competition, tells us that not so long ago it was just he and his friends sneaking into parks and onto golf courses to strap on virtual reality goggles and pit their custom-built quadcopters against one another.

"It started with a YouTube video that I watched with my friend and it blew our minds, we went crazy," explains Gatica. "We watched this video, ordered drone kits from China, built them, configured them and then did some flying and loved it. Using the first-person view system was like hallucinating. From there, we put LEDs on the drones and made a video of them flying at night and it went viral. Within two weeks, we had about 20 pilots who were interested in meeting up and getting involved and that's how it got started."

Rapidly moving from small gatherings to professional competitions complete with corporate sponsors like Movistar (a local telecommunications giant who also live streamed the event) is a pretty common tale in the world of drone racing. This year ESPN is broadcasting the US National Drone Racing championships for the first time, and back in March, a teenager took home US$250,000 at Dubai's World Drone Prix. But in this part of the world, Gatica tells us, it is Chile that is leading the charge.

"We are now at the vanguard of drone racing in South America," he says. "Ahead of Argentina, Peru, Colombia, because of how it is organized here and because of the professionalism, here it is a proper sport. We are using all the same norms that are used in the US by the Drone Racing Association, of which we are actually members."

While the majority of pilots competing here are from Chile's capital, some have ventured from southern towns such as Puerto Varas and from the coastal cities of Valparaíso and Viña del Mar. But there is also an international flavor to the event, with the special invitation of two pilots from Peru, two from Argentina and one from Ecuador. They too are competing for the chance to represent their nations at the World Drone Racing Championships next month, but without official qualifying events in their home countries, they've made the pilgrimage to Parque Padre Hurtado to chase their drone-racing dreams.

Among the field of 42 hopefuls is Ignacio Torres, a robotics researcher at Chile's University of Talca, whose introduction to drone racing came about through his work obligations.

"The first thing that I had to do when I got there was build a brand-new drone and I fell in love with them right away," he says. "When I finished the quad and started flying it, it instantly became a big love of mine, it was amazing. And when I got the FPV (first-person-view) system, it felt like I was in heaven."

These FPV systems are basically virtual reality goggles that stream a live feed from a camera mounted to the front of the drone, creating an immersive sensation that is a big part of why the sport has exploded in popularity.

"You are flying inside the drone, and you feel like you are inside the drone, but there is a part of you telling you that you are sitting away from it," says Torres. "So you have to have the ability to think and be the drone when you're flying, but knowing that you are not in danger. It is like a safe form of adrenaline, like racing a car or something like that, but you know you are safe."

José Luis Gallardo, a civil engineering student from the Federico Santa María Technical University in Valparaíso, feels much the same way. Through the university he has helped organize smaller, unofficial drone races in Chile, but after seeing them in action he couldn't help but get involved – and the soaring sensation has him hooked.

"The view feels very different from what we normally see, it's more like you are literally flying," he says. "This gives you the energy and motivation to keep flying and performing these kinds of aerial acrobatics."

The high-flying exploits of Gallardo, Torres and their cohorts attracted a small, but attentive crowd at the Parque Padre Hurtado. Spectators sat in deckchairs next to a stage that hosted impromptu dance contests throughout the day, overlooking a course that consisted mostly of cones and flags as borders and as checkpoints. So it won't exactly rival the glitz and glamor of Dubai's $1 million World Drone Prix, but was a perfectly suitable proving ground for a bunch of early adopters looking to showcase their skills.

Racing is the name of the game here, but the event also features a freestyle contest, where rather than focusing on speed, pilots perform tricks such as barrel rolls and other twists and turns. Plenty use the breaks in between races to practice these maneuvers and plenty are forced to head straight to the repair tent thereafter to get their vehicles back up and running.

The Chile Drone Nationals were held over two days and pilots Felipe Vergara, Pablo Fernandez, Carlos Hartmann, José Venegas and Matias Arangua ended up snagging the tickets to Hawaii. We will have to wait and see how they fare against the world's best, but one thing is almost certain, there'll be a lot more competition for those qualification spots by the time Chile's 2017 Drone Nationals roll around.

"This community is around one year old, but it is growing exponentially and the last couple of months especially have been explosive," says Torres. "It is crazy. Next year's event is going be bigger, it's going to be faster, it's going to be crazier, I'm sure of that."

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