Debuting as Europe's first Indoor Drone Racing Series, UK Drone Show and Insomnia Gaming Festival have partnered together as part of a three year joint venture. This is the first event and takes place at Insomnia 58 (i58), featuring 24 of the UK's fastest drone racers around in an epic feat to win their share of the £5,000 up for grabs as prize money. £2,500 was set to go towards 1st place, with 2nd, 3rd and 4th receiving lower amounts and another prize fund for a secondary bonus knockout competition for those who did not place in the top 4 as well as a prize for the fastest lap in this secondary knock-out tournament.
Insomnia Gaming Festival has been something I've always wanted to go to and really experience but never actually made it for various reasons. I come from a gaming background, having played competitively since the early teens in games such as Solider of Fortune 2, Counter-Strike and League of Legends. It was really only since taking up drone racing that I've just really had no time to dedicate to playing anymore as this really takes up all my free time, but I still have a passion for it and regularly still catch up with tournaments and live stream events. Being able to compete at such a highly regarded gaming event for me is just crazy to think about, it's such a perfect match up and I think so many people will have a new-found interest from it (and I hope they do actually give it a go!), that almost feels like a game when you are flying due to the immersion of the headsets we wear. Plus, actually, the controls are not too dissimilar from flying helicopters in the latest FPS games so entry into the hobby as a gamer couldn't be easier in fact.
For us pilots the event consisted of 5 days, compared to that of the 4 days for the general public and gamers. Footage collected from the full production team and GoPro's attached to the drones would capture the whole days' racing where it would be edited up into a neat segment outlining the racing. This was then broadcast the following day on the main-stage for all to see, seating around 4,000 spectators with another 3,000 standing available.
- Day 1 - Final preparations of drones including camera setting adjustments for the low light indoor environment, followed by practice and the individual qualifying runs. Both of the 2 qualifying runs would then be used to seed us into the groups for the main qualifying in Day 2.
- Day 2 - Qualifying for the main knockout stages, pilots were seeded based on fastest lap time from Day 1, and put into groups of similar skill aiming to reduce mid-air crashes between the faster and slower pilots.
- Day 3 - Knockouts for the 16 pilots that made it through, based on the most laps completed in a 2 minute timer in the group qualifying stages. Knockouts were also groups of 4, with two pilots going through from each group to create a Quarter Finals, Semi Finals, and the Finals. These would take place throughout the day with full interviews after each race regarding the goings on.
- Day 4 - Known as the 'consolation cup' by the pilots, racers had a final chance to bag prize money from the fastest lap or first place in another knockout based tournament, with qualifying rounds as well.
- Day 5 - The main prize-giving ceremony to be done on the mainstage at 4pm which in turn closes the whole Insomnia Gaming Festival.
We all arrived bright and early on Thursday morning ready to go, and started by exploring the many halls occupied by Insomnia Gaming Festival. The pilots were excited by one particular hall of course - where they'd be flying for the next 4 days!
As the show was not open until the following day we got to experience all of the exhibitions, halls and general areas before they became jam-packed. Most of the show was still setting up but it was crazy to see the sheer scale of how big Insomnia Gaming Festival has become. With an estimated footfall of around 95,000 people throughout the weekend it is no surprise the sheer scale of the manpower required to get everything built up and ready to be enjoyed by anyone who is interested in gaming, and the future of gaming.
Pilots were shown to their home for the next few days; a small room next to Hall 11 known as the "Drone Repair Room" - a very apt name as we knew the course would be made out of solid metal structures, meaning any fast crashes could mean being very lucky and picking up a drone unscathed, or required a bin bag and search team for the pieces it had exploded into! With everyone gathered together the safety briefing was given by a familiar face to all of the pilots, Eric Li-Koo. He is very well known for putting on great races, and was in charge of running the races here too.
After the safety briefing we were given an opportunity to walk the course to familiarize ourselves with it. The lighting system rigged up to the course was pretty spectacular, everything could be changed from a complex control box - whether it be lighting strength, colour and everything else you'd expect. For now, the track was lit up so we could see where we were going, but the track colours were set to change during racing.
The track was designed some months prior to the show and re-created into DroneSimulation, a simulator that is favoured by many pilots around the world above the others. A two week tournament took place during August where pilots would battle it out to complete 3 laps in the quickest time they possibly could. A prize fund of £350 split between 1st, 2nd and 3rd place was awarded to the winners and really got the pilots engaged and ready to take the course on in person. The results of the competition can be round here.
The track differed ever so slightly from the one we had flown in the simulator, but this actually lifted the spirits of a lot of pilots who had struggled to complete laps on the simulator. The gates had been enlarged quite considerably which meant both course navigation and overtaking should be much easier and safer, providing some great footage for the spectators, and really demonstrating what drone racing is all about, and how exhilarating it is when you are in that moment.
Here's some footage of the simulator track in action to give you a feel for what the pilots have to navigate through as fast as they can.
The environment remains as dark as possible with only the key elements of the track lit up, creating a new challenge for pilots who traditionally only race in the day time.
After walking the track pilots were given the chance to adjust camera settings - races are usually ran in the day and also outside. Because of this, most people use Infrared blocked cameras which help reduce glare when flying in sunlight. This is great for day time, but actually limits the amount of light that can enter the sensor when it's dark so it's important to adjust brightness, contrast, and other settings to really make the track show up as clear as possible. Pilots worked together to achieve the optimal camera settings to racing due to all running the same camera equipment. The community aspect of drone racing is a great one because regardless of prize money at stake people work together to help each other out because of the great friendships developed at these events. I can guarantee you will not find a sport where competitors are more willing to help each other out.
The first few rounds of individual qualifying were extremely tense. This was the first time anyone had flown the track, and they had the pressure of everyone watching their every move, both with their own FPV goggles and visual line of sight. As the course had not been flown up until this was also a sanity check that everything worked as expected, there was no RF interference that had previously been undetected and the conditions were OK to fly in. Near misses with the track, the ceiling and the floor felt like a pantomime with every pilot zoned in on spectating the flights.
The two qualifying rounds (one in the morning and one in the afternoon) went smoothly and to schedule without any hiccups, ready for the announcement of the table seeding the following day where pilots will compete against each other but also in their groups for the fastest lap times they can achieve in the 2 minutes.
My qualifying round footage can be found here:
Qualifying in Day 1 saw Luke take the lead initially ahead of everyone with a whopping 15.94 second lap, just under 2 seconds faster than second place. This great lead was soon swallowed up when Brett sneaked in a super quick time of 14.94 seconds in his second session, pushing Luke back behind a second.
Luke managed to gain a few hundredths of a second in his second session, leaving him 0.76 seconds behind the new leader. I was positioned not too far behind putting in a 16.75 second lap, and this was actually my fastest of the event. Closely behind that we had Tom Stanton on my tail, ready to pounce when possible.
Todays action featured all 24 pilots battling out through 4 rounds of qualifying in groups of 4 to get as many laps as they could in the 2 minutes provided over a race distance of 6 laps. This race format was done "F1 style" whereby the race is over when the leader crosses the line and all remaining pilots may only finish their current lap. The aim of the game was similar to yesterday, but instead of fastest lap, scores were based on the fastest times to do 6 laps, or less if 6 laps were not completed.
Pilots battled it out against each other of similar skill level, extra video interference and distractions going around the course meant keeping your focus and nerves intact was key to survival; one mistake and you're out!
Pilots had their own strategies of how to make that top 16 for the knockout stages but there was a general theme amongst the drone racers. Banking laps in a safe manner for a couple of rounds seemed to be a safe plan as long as you were within the top 16 already (not taking risks in theory reduces the amount of mistakes you would make). This meant you could leave the next two rounds of qualifying to really push yourself and the quad to go for that all out speed if getting high on the leaderboards was an important personal goal.
With 4 rounds completed and the knockout table constructed, we all gathered in the drone repair room to be told our fate for tomorrow - whether or not we got to race in the knockouts for that £4,500 prize fund, or whether we had a free day to explore the Insomnia Gaming Festival and compete the day after for the remaining £250 in the consolation cup. Every pilot except for the Top 4 had the chance to compete in the consolation cup, giving everyone a fair chance and another go for pilots to harness their skills and really learn the track.
For qualifying I had to play it safe for a lot of the rounds as I had made a mistake in my very first round which put me at a 0 lap round already and I was positioned bottom of the leaderboards. With safe and steady laps being the focus I managed to bag a few successful rounds (one of them was not so safe as Luke had crashed into me - those who follow the racing scene will know this is a common occurrence!), but I had managed to regain my position as 5th on the leaderboards.
Here's the highlights from day 2:
Qualifying groups were split equally based on position across the 4 groups to give everyone a fair chance at getting through. The top two pilots from each Quarter Final race will advance to the Semi Finals, and similarly from the semi-finals to the grand final to make the top 4. Nerves were building up from all pilots as they went into their quarter finals as one mistake can cost you the competition at this point. Knockouts are brutal for any pilot and reward both speed and consistency when flying against the clock.
Due to my lower than expected result for qualifying compared to my individual qualifying it had meant I got seeded slightly lower than how I was performing on the first day. Because of that, it created a bit of a 'death group'. I've battled against Aaron Bromfield in the finals at Delta Hawks where I made a mistake in the last lap and he overtook me, and on the last corner of the race I managed to regain my composure and shoot past him into the finish line, only a few meters ahead. The worry for all 4 of us was that only 2 people could progress through, and with such a strong group of racers it really came down to keeping that consistency. We all knew that any mistakes would cost us the competition, most of the battle in racing is really against yourself. If you fly to the best of your ability, and keep doing that, you will progress up through the ranks. But if you cannot contain your nerves that is where you end up making mistakes.
The race was a close and nerve-wracking one felt by all of us. Aaron had made a mistake and crashed out, and Phil was banking laps a few seconds behind me and Brett. Not one of us made a mistake that round and we ended up finishing the race smoothly without issue, with Brett taking the lead, followed by myself and then Phil in third place.
With the quarter final knockout stages complete we lose half of the pilots again, leaving only 8 remaining in the tournament. At this point this is the single race left between going home with nothing, or going home with prize money! Due to the way that the groups had seeded again, we found ourselves in another 'death group'. Myself and Tom Stanton had ranked ourselves 4th and 5th in Individual Qualifying, we knew it was going to be close as our skill is so matched with lap times of less than a second in it! Luke Bannister was relatively secure taking 1st place in the group stages provided he did not make any mistakes, as he was flying around 2 seconds a lap faster in his fastest laps recorded compared to ours. Adam Gooch was also a strong contender to make it through the group stages as he had shown great consistency in the events leading up to this.
As soon as the race began we had a huge battle on our hands for second place, with myself and Tom constantly overtaking each other throughout the different sections of the course. It was visible as a spectator that Tom was faster in some sections, with myself leading in the others. Every section of the course had a new 2nd place leader in this epic battle right up until the last lap of the race whereby Tom had managed to clip the gate leading into the start/finish which sadly took him out of the race as it broke a propeller. Adam was following closely behind but sadly not quite close enough to do any overtaking. With what I can only describe as my best race ever (in terms of proximity and overtaking in one race), Luke and me had made it through to the finals. For me it was a huge sigh of relief. Day 1 had started great, I'd put myself in the position I wanted to be in, but Day 2 was a rocky road of crashes and collisions that really knocked confidence going into Day 3. Making into the finals was all I had really wanted to do, and I had managed to make it!
In Semi Final B there was a similar tale of crazy battles between Leo, Richard and James, with Leo managing to keep his nerves at bay and take that all important second place to progress through the knockouts. Brett had a considerable lead in first place and also went through, seeding as first in his semi-final.
With the final groups decided, every drone pilot in this group was walking away with a minimum prize reward of £350, not a bad prize fund at all considering the first of many iSeries events to take place within the next few years!
Every drone pilot gathered in the racing hall to watch the final. Everyone knew it was going to be a close battle that would see some great racing action, and with the countdown starting everyone went silent as we heard the quads arming up and the propellers start to spin. As soon as that starting beep sounded Luke had shot off down the long straight with an incredible lead, this had to be the best start of the tournament - he had instantly gained a good 20 meter gap from everyone else. Brett followed behind trying to catch up followed by myself and Leo - we were tightly packed and within a second of each other. Luke had set a good 2 second lead on his opening lap which meant he was in a comfortable position, deservedly so as he had been fast and consistent the entire competition so far. Brett, Leo and myself were constantly switching positions with each other, overtakes on every possible corner. Going through the start/finish together sounded almost like one beep instead of three due to the proximity of the drones. Part-way into the second lap I got a little too close to Leo after he had scraped along the floor on one of the tight corners, which forced me to retake the gate in front of us. After retaking it and trying to regain composure it sadly did not happen and I made a mistake just a few corners along the course, wrapping the quad into the trussing. I tried relentlessly to "free" the quad, spinning the propellers up and stopping them, but sadly it was wedged in and I was going nowhere. With one quad out of the race Luke, Brett and Leo continued for multiple laps, with the gaps increasing between all 3 pilots as they got into the flow and banked the laps. Towards the last lap Brett had a video issue on his drone and completely lost video, resulting in a pretty bad crash into one of the gates down the long straight. Leo took his opportunity to overtake him and complete his final lap to gain a well deserved second place.
And that was it, Luke had won the first iSeries drone racing event! The results remained a secret until the racing was broadcast on the main stage the following day. The final days racing can be viewed just below where you can see all of the action that took place.
For those of us that made the top 4 of the main competition our racing was done, we were free to roam around the rest of the halls and see what goes on at Insomnia Gaming Festival.
Naturally, this meant most of us were seen spending our time at the DroneSimulation stand, playing around on the simulator and testing the new levels that were soon to be released. Even when there's so much to do elsewhere at the event, the pilots live and breathe drone racing and FPV. It's one of those sports where you can do it competitively or for fun and escapism and I can say without out a doubt it always leaves us with a big grin on our faces.
Back at Hall 11 the racing continued on with the remaining 20 pilots competing for a remaining £250 prize pool, with £200 going to the overall winner of another knock-out based competition, and £50 going towards whoever can complete the fastest lap during it. With some insanely close racing, Tom Stanton managed to take both prizes bagging a great runners up prize and some confidence back after such a close race in the main tournament which knocked him out of the main podium places.
The last day of iSeries featured no racing, but we had the pleasure of being the closing feature on the main stage of the whole Insomnia Gaming Festival.
Darren Jeffries presented the show where the audience got to view all of the videos from the past few days in a catch-up episode. We also got the opportunity to try and teach a two YouTube celebrities to try and fly on the simulator, to see if they had what it takes to become a drone racer. Guest interviews from myself and Leo also took place and focused on explaining how we got into the hobby, and how others can get into this great hobby.
The end featured the prize-giving of Luke being awarded his cheque and getting to lift that trophy as a deserving 1st place win in the first iSeries event. The event was a huge success, listening in to other conversations as we walked around the show we discovered that drone racing was one of the main discussions. So many people did not know that drones could be flown so fast or with such agility, with many saying that they were interested in getting their own. I really cannot wait to see what iSeries comes up with next, considering this was the first event it was absolutely a success and really exceeded everyone's expectations with the response.
Tom Stanton has also created a great video log of the entire weekend, really showing how great the community is and how we all get along. Everyone single one of us comes from a different background, and with our own story, but the friendships created from this amazing sport are priceless.
Thank you Insomnia and thank you iSeries, we'll see you at the next event!!