Watch the Best Drone Freestylers in the World

Follow these filmmaker-pilots as they soar over gorgeous tropical rainforests, scale buildings, and weave through underground structures (warning: you're about to experience that roller-coaster-stomach-drop).

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The drones are coming. This weekend, to be specific, as dozens of drone pilots descend on Governors Island in New York Harbor for the second annual National Drone Racing Championships. Originally developed for military use, the drone has become the 21st-century answer to the radio-controlled model airplane. Any flight enthusiast over sixteen can learn to navigate one; even the Apple Store sells drones. And there's a pure joy in watching drone pilots race this piece of aerodynamic tech at breakneck speeds, a high-octane thrill not unlike watching an extreme sports competition.

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The ultimate hangout for the goggle-wearing drone geeks of the world. Video courtesy of @dronenationals

However, it's the Championships' FreeStyle Invitational, where drone pilots capture stunning aerial video with the natural landscape serving as an obstacle course, that turns the sport into a graceful art form. The freestyle pilots performing this weekend all have huge followings on YouTube, where they post FPV (first person view) footage that takes their audiences through surreal, remote locales (e.g., volcanoes in Hawaii, abandoned structures in Russian forests). Using goggles to navigate the drones as if they're controlling them from a cockpit, the pilots perform at the intersection of technology, sports, and filmmaking.

Meet four of the best freestyle drone pilots in the world, and watch their incredible hi-def videos.

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Not your average walk on the beach.

Ethan Gulnac

Hometown

Maui, HI

How'd you get into drones?

A few years ago, I bought a kit to build my first RC airplane. Initially, the learning process was difficult and I had a few crashes. After some time, I was lucky enough to find guidance from the local RC club members who mentored me. A couple years later, I saw a video of people racing drones in their backyard with the freedom to fly like a bird. After that, I built my first racing drone, and it's all been a blur since.

Most interesting place you've shot footage?

Maui is famous for its tropical beauty and diverse ecosystems, which make for some amazing places to fly. Out of any place I've flown, I'd say the most beautiful location was at a beach early in the morning.

How would you describe your flight style?

As a freestyle pilot, I try incorporate both precision and flow in my flying. The thing I love the most about freestyle flying is the ability to express yourself.

[STEELE DAVIS INLINE VID]

Hope you're not afraid of heights.

Steele Davis

Hometown

Atlanta, GA

How'd you get into drones?

I got a toy helicopter from my grandmother for Christmas in 2013. After a few months researching radio-controlled helicopters, I stumbled across a few YouTube channels that focused on FPV.

Most interesting place you've shot footage?

Chernobyl, Ukraine, is the most interesting place I have flown. The history of the place is fascinating, and the sights are unmatched.

How would you describe your flight style?

High energy mixed with precision and a dash of that special ingredient that makes the whole recipe come together.

Tommy Tibanjia's expertise is executing quick, tight maneuvers in industrial structures.

Tommy Tibajia

Hometown

Huntington Beach, CA

How'd you get into drones?

I was at Coachella a few years back, and saw these lights in the sky that were moving so robotically. After some Googling, I figured out that it had been a drone. Then I found out I could build one. But it wasn't until I discovered that you could fly a drone using goggles and a camera that I got hooked. I started posting videos, and the community took notice.

Most interesting place you've shot footage?

A waterfall in Hawaii.

How would you describe your flight style?

I like to do one-takes that are more expressive than technical. I also try to do epic feats. [Ed note: Search "ultimate duga dive" on YouTube and watch Tommy maneuver through the labyrinth of antennae in a former Soviet radar structure.]

So much of drone freestyle is about exploring unexplored sites in your own city.

Zoe Stumbaugh

Hometown

Santa Cruz, CA

How'd you first get into drones?

I was stuck in bed with a long list of medical complications, and a friend told me to find a hobby. So I went to the local hobby shop and found a micro drone that fit in my hand. I've been in love with RC flight ever since!

Most interesting place you've flown?

The Santa Cruz beach boardwalk is beautiful when you wake up at the break of dawn, avoiding the rush of tourists.

How would you describe your flight style?

Different! While most freestyle pilots are iterations of each other, I've got a bag of tricks all my own.

The National Drone Racing Championships take place from August 5–7 on Governors Island in New York City. To get all the details on the action, visit dronenationals.com.

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