When drones and virtual reality come together in an out-of-body experience

Raphael Pirker, the entrepreneur behind Team BlackSheep, asked me if I saw the birds. Tilting my head up at the foggy skies above the hills of Moraga, California, I couldn’t see them — my view didn’t change, no matter which way I turned my head.

I had forgotten that my eyes were not my own — they belonged to a drone named Gemini.

I tilted my head back down, instinctively looking at the controller in my hands, even though I couldn’t see that either. My view, still of the mountains and the foggy sky, stayed the same. My thumb nudged the left joystick forward, and my line of vision went up until I finally saw three black birds circling near me, their outlines a bit fuzzy.

My body was a hundred feet below, standing on a hilltop a half hour east of the San Francisco Bay. The birds were high in the sky, and my drone, with its camera pointing toward them, was now flying at the same altitude. The buzzing eventually scared them off, and I thumbed the joystick down and guided the drone back toward me.

My body came into view: white goggles strapped to my face, controller in my hands, shoes soaked in the wet grass. It was the first time in my life I had stared at myself — from outside of myself.

Gigaom staffer Biz Carson tries her hand at flying a drone.

Gigaom staffer Biz Carson tries her hand at flying a drone.

First-person drones

Before last week’s adventure in the East Bay’s hills, the one time I’d test-flown a drone was inside the Gigaom office, where the GPS didn’t work and the slightest flick of my finger on the handset sent the drone straight into the ceiling and crashing into the floor. Drones are meant to be flown outdoors, where GPS coordinates can pick them up and guide them, and you’re left tracking a whizzing orb in the sky with your eyes and maneuvering it via a controller it in your hands.

But that day in Moraga, I was with my Gigaom colleague Signe Brewster and drone advocate Raphael Pirker, who was in town from Hong Kong where he runs Team BlackSheep to go drone racing. It’s a natural progression for drone hobbyists, Pirker explained. Once they get good at flying around, people turn competitive and start racing in a kind of Star Wars–style pod-racing thing of the future.

First-person-view drones, or FPV drones, operate a little differently from the hobby drones you most often hear about in the news. They’re operated by relaying the video stream from the drone’s camera into a pair of virtual reality goggles, instead of piloting the device by just watching it in the sky.

But it’s not virtual reality in a typical sense. Most VR products tout a 360-degree experience — you can stand in a room and look all around it. FPV drones have a fixed view, so you can’t see what’s around the drone, only what the camera on the drone is seeing. Compared to Microsoft’s HoloLens project, FPV drones are not considered augmented reality either since you’re not using your own eyes to see reality with a projection upon it. In the Fat Shark–branded goggles, my peripheral vision was all black, but my eyes were focused on the green hills and gray horizon — not a virtual environment, but a future use case for VR technology.

Because of the battery life, most FPV drone flights last less than 10 minutes. After six minutes of seeing the world through the eyes of a machine, I got spooked and handed over the controls. But if you get the opportunity to fly for six minutes, you should take it.

Eyes in the sky

The course was laid out below me: four flags and a bush that I was supposed to weave this mechanical piece of plastic through.

Instead, I just wanted to hover high above the course, flicking my right thumb on the control pad left and right to turn the drone’s camera – and my eyes – around the vista. Otherwise it was mostly quiet as I flew above the hills, except for me chattering anxiously to those around me. The drone was too far away for me to hear its buzzing.

I don’t know what I expected flying to feel like. I’ve never hovered above land before, on a hot air balloon or while paragliding or skydiving. The closest feeling I could compare it to was being at the top of a roller coaster, where you look out as you teeter at the top before gravity pulls you back down.

Biz Carson, right, navigates an FPV drone while Raphael Pirker, far left, and Olivier Ancely, middle, watch the same feed on a screen.

Biz Carson, right, navigates an FPV drone while Raphael Pirker, far left, and Olivier Ancely, middle, watch the same feed on a screen.

Flying, via a drone’s perspective, abandons those physical limitations. I didn’t have to worry about parachutes or inflating or deflating a balloon to go up or down. I nudged a joystick up to be among birds. If I had accidentally crashed the drone, the loss would have been a couple hundred dollars of plastic and my ego — not my life. It’s an out-of-body experience that doesn’t require death to be a part of it. I could have always turned the camera around to look at myself, my physical body, to make sure I was still there on that mountain top — and then moved my fingers and flown on.

As I handed off the controls, Pirker’s friend did a barrel roll with the drone, flipping it in circles in the sky. When was the last time my vision had been spinning like this?

I felt like I was a kid rolling down a hill, that spinning vision of earth, sky, earth, sky, earth, sky. My eyes and my mind were detached from my body.

As the drone came in for a landing, my body came into view once more. I wasn’t covered in dirt. I hadn’t been rolling down a hill. I had never been flying in the sky, or scaring away birds. My feet were still soaked through on a soggy mountain top.

I took off the goggles, my vision once again, disappointingly, my own. Grounded.

3D Robotics raises $50M to improve its drones

3D Robotics has raised $50 million in a Series C round led by Qualcomm Ventures, adding to the burgeoning funding going toward drones and the greater robotics industry.

The Berkeley, California-based startup will use the money to invest in drone and software development as well as integrate mobile phone technology, such as processors, into its drones. The mobile device industry has poured so much money into developing miniaturized components for its phones that their processors are now used in everything from robots to satellites.

Foundry Group, True Ventures, OATV, Mayfield, Shea Ventures and other unnamed investors also contributed to the round. Forbes noted 3D Robotics was originally looking to raise $40 million.

3D Robotics previously raised a combined $35 million in its Series A and B rounds. It makes sensor-laden drones that can collect data for farmers, real estate firms and anyone else who could benefit from surveying land from the air. It also makes consumer drones like the Iris+.

Disclosure: 3D Robotics is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of Gigaom.

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Racing, from a drone’s point of a view: a day with UAV advocate Raphael Pirker

There is a zen moment when you are flying a drone in the first-person perspective when the ground drops away and the camera stabilizes. There is a horizon in every direction, and the only question left is, “Which way do you want to fly?”

“It’s the ability to be in the pilot’s seat without the danger of actually being in the pilot’s seat,” said Raphael “Trappy” Pirker, the entrepreneur and enthusiast behind the Team BlackSheep drone shop and community. “You can travel places, you can see stuff from a different perspective. It’s kind of a mix of outdoor adventure and technology.”

Pirker, who develops and sells drones from Hong Kong, travels the world shooting familiar sites from new perspectives. You may have come across his closeup view of a fireworks display or flight around the Statue of Liberty. Team BlackSheep’s videos are daring — close passes over the highest point of the Golden Gate Bridge, long shots of dense city streets and breathtaking vertical pans of skyscrapers.

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It’s one part activism and one part obsession. Team BlackSheep has flown over mountains in Pirker’s native Switzerland and Austria. They have flown in cities where crashing a drone will land you in jail. The team’s first video of New York carries both a warning and a challenge: Don’t try this at home, but ‘Hey, look we safely shot this video and didn’t get arrested.’

In the end, it wasn’t a daredevil flight that landed Pirker in trouble. A promotional video he shot for the University of Virginia in 2011 earned him a $10,000 fine from the Federal Aviation Administration asserting he flew recklessly and without a license.

Raphael "Trappy" Pirker races a first person view, or FPV, drone on February 19, 2015 in Moraga, California. The drone transmits its camera feed to Pirker's goggles so he can see what the drone sees and can control it.

Raphael “Trappy” Pirker races a first person view, or FPV, drone on February 19, 2015 in Moraga, California. The drone transmits its camera feed to Pirker’s goggles so he can see what the drone sees and can control it.

Pirker fought the fine. The four years the case dragged on coincided with both an explosion in drone popularity and meddling from the FAA. Courts have gone back and forth on whether or not the FAA has any say at all in small aircraft, but that hasn’t stopped the it from bestowing fines or cease and desist letters on individuals like Pirker for widely-varying reasons. Pirker finally settled with the FAA for $1,100 last month.

Last week was Pirker’s first time in the U.S. since the case closed. He was nervous to cross the border at all, let alone with suitcases full of drone equipment. He missed his first flight to San Francisco after he was held at customs. Agents asked him to clarify his reason for visiting the U.S. and then let him go. Hours later, he was flying a drone.

Olivier Ancely, Raphael Pirker and Jeff Colhoun race FPV drones on February 19, 2015 in Moraga, California.

Olivier Ancely, Raphael Pirker and Jeff Colhoun race FPV drones on February 19, 2015 in Moraga, California.

You only have to meet Pirker and the other members of the Team BlackSheep community once to realize they are adrenaline junkies. Twenty years ago, they might have chosen to pursue a pilot’s license (which some of them have), but unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, have opened up an easier, more versatile way to take to the air.

When Pirker flew his first drone 12 years ago, it was a model aircraft not much different than the radio controlled planes hobbyists had been flying for decades. But looking up at a flying plane wasn’t enough for Pirker. He added radios and transmitters and integrated faster, more agile drone bodies with goggles that display the drone camera’s view in real time.

The Gemini drone flies in a FPV race on February 19, 2015 in Moraga, California.

The Gemini drone flies in a FPV race on February 19, 2015 in Moraga, California.

“This changed everything. You’re no longer looking at the plane. You’re flying inside it. You don’t have the limitation of flying just around you,” Pirker said. “It felt a little bit like Superman.”

Last week, atop a grassy hill a half hour east of San Francisco, I slipped on a pair of Fat Shark-brand goggles and flew Team BlackSheep’s Gemini drone. It has six rotors — two more than a quadcopter — which gives it greater stability and the ability to keep flying even if one of its motors goes down. It doesn’t use GPS to lock its position, leaving the pilot in total control.

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“The focus is not on producing pretty videos. The focus is on performance and high speed,” Pirker said. “The motors are tilted forward. That reduces the drag of the whole thing. It’s much smaller and it’s more compact so it can turn faster.”

For the casual drone user, that’s intimidating. But when I lifted into the air, the Fat Shark’s low-resolution screen displaying green grass spreading out in all directions below me, I felt calm. With a first-person point of view, the dynamic of you-drone-ground disappears. Being in the pilot seat made me more confident of my movements. I stopped worrying about crashing a whirring hunk of plastic at 20 MPH because I couldn’t actually see it.

An adrenaline junkie does not stop at simply exploring with a drone. Team BlackSheep is actually a team — they are drone racers. It was a natural progression, Pirker said. You learn a skill and then want to turn it into a competition.

Jeff Colhoun, of Oakland, California; Olivier Ancely, of Miami, Florida; and Raphael "Trappy" Pirker of Hong Kong pose for a picture as on February 19, 2015 in Moraga, California.

Jeff Colhoun, of Oakland, California; Olivier Ancely, of Miami, Florida; and Raphael “Trappy” Pirker of Hong Kong pose for a picture as on February 19, 2015 in Moraga, California.

Below me on that grassy hill was a race course. Four flags and a bush designated a track that Pirker, Jeff Colhoun of Oakland, California, and Olivier Ancely of Miami, Florida, whizzed around with speed and precision that I didn’t dare attempt. Drones crashed into trees, the ground and each other. Parts broke and overheated.

That day’s race was more of a casual competition among friends, but drone racing is a serious sport. There are regular local and international races. A few days prior to my meeting with Pirker, more than 80 pilots participated in a race in Oakland.

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“It’s just really exciting to fly fast, to fly close to the ground, and to compete against your friends,” Pirker said. “Any movement that the drone makes you can actually feel. Your brain cannot really properly distinguish between being in the pilot seat or being on the ground. That’s why our heads are always moving or our bodies are always moving while we’re in the goggles.”

Pirker said it’s mostly drone hobbyists who find their way into the sport, but anyone who enjoys video games can appreciate it.

“It doesn’t really feel like you’re racing in the real world. It feels like a virtual reality game, more or less,” Pirker said.

Olivier Ancely waves at the drone's camera as it comes in for landing on February 19, 2015 in Moraga, California.

Olivier Ancely waves at the drone’s camera as it comes in for landing on February 19, 2015 in Moraga, California.

Racing may become a more important outlet for U.S. drone hobbyists under new rules proposed by the FAA this month. The requirements said drones must be within sight of their pilot and a spotter needs to be close by if goggles are worn. The line of sight rule would put an end to the long range flights and many of the dramatic shots favored by Team BlackSheep. But Pirker said he is glad the U.S. government is proposing regulations, as black and white rules are better than gray.

“I guess in a perfect world there would be no rules,” Pirker said. “But we’ve all got to live with some rules.”