If you're of a certain age and inclination, and particularly if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, a typical Friday night might include a few beers, a few friends, and a few hours spent smashing your homemade robots together in a brutal fight to the mechanical death.
Marque Cornblatt, founder and CEO of Game of Drones, a company that makes drone airframes and oversees a burgeoning aerial sports league, was part of one such informal group that switched from fighting terrestrial robots to fighting drones about five years ago. The dimension of flight added something spectacular to the fierce showdowns, but there were two problems: drones are fragile and they're mighty expensive.
"Back then most of the hardware was over the counter or off the shelf stuff, really just toys," Cornblatt tells me over the phone. "They would fail and break miserably. A lot of them were too fragile to even learn to fly properly on."
He and his friends decided to fix the problem by coming up with a more durable air frame. Now, five years later, aerial sports -- drone fighting and racing -- seem primed to become a major new driver of consumer drone sales, and Cornblatt is sitting atop a deranged and delightful empire in the making.
To create a new kind of drone, one that would stand up to the rigors of battle, Cornblatt's team had to radically rethink the way drones are designed. "Everything that came in the box was a fail point, the air frame especially." Most drone airframes are made from laser cut carbon fiber or molded plastic, materials that are light and stiff. Those features, while ideal for flight, come at the expense of durability. Worse, most drone engineers inadvertently integrate components in ways that lead to cascading failure -- if one component breaks, it's likely to take several other components with it.
Fundamentally, according to Cornblatt, the problem is that drones are designed using principles that were refined in building manned aircraft. But while the primary objective for every manned flight is to avoid crashing, there's no inherent need to handle drones with kid gloves -- that is, not if the airframe can be made robust enough.
"We don't want to treat drones like flowers anymore, but more like proper work tools. We want to make drones as sexy as a shovel. You should be able to throw one in the back of your pickup with your other tools."
Cornblatt and his partner began testing military grade plastics and ballistics materials. Over the course of two years they honed their design down to a monocoque airframe that they've deemed virtually indestructible. If that claim invites skepticism, consider some of the tests they've performed: Drones built with the Game of Drones airframe have been shot with a 12 gauge shotgun, stomped on, flown through fire, and crashed directly into a wall at full speed. And they still fly.
"The ironic thing is that when you check your drone in as luggage, you have to put it in a hard case. Our airframe is actually much stronger than any case. You can pile luggage on top of it all day." The pair raised $50,000 in a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2014, and the airframes, which can be filled with a variety of quadcopter components, are now available for purchase on the Game of Drones website.
What started as a home build to enhance a unique backyard sport has become a popular product, but the more notable growth, one that portends a whole new consumer drone category, may be the aerial sports league that Game of Drones oversees. From five guys drinking beer on Friday nights the league has grown to include 16 chapters all over California and in countries like New Zealand, Amsterdam, China, and Japan. The league hosts drone combat and paintball, as well as drone racing. The San Francisco Game of Drones Meetup group has more than 500 members, and a reality T.V. show about the league is currently in development.
"The racing is encouraging a lot of new people to give drone sports a try," says Cornblatt. "And it's really growing rapidly. We think it's going to be a bigger market than cinematography, which is basically what most consumer drones are geared toward right now."