Life

The fledgling sport of drone racing has pilots viewing the course through cameras mounted on their stripped-down, supercharged craft. By Samuel J. Fell.

The international rise of drone racing

Chad Nowak at the World Drone Prix in Dubai in March.
Credit: David Stock

Like a bat out of hell, the little X-shaped machine, small propellers mounted at the end of each of four arms, shoots off into the distance. In a matter of seconds it’s no longer visible to the naked eye, although you can hear it, buzzing through the trees at up to 140km/h.

It suddenly reappears from on high and like a demented magpie at the height of nesting season, it swoops, pulling up at the last minute and executing a series of barrel-rolls, ripping past the two of us standing on the wooden deck of a house on a hill in Ormeau, just south of Brisbane. It banks sharply, a left turn, and darts back into the bushland, again invisible.

Chad Nowak, standing beside me, is the one controlling it. Via a set of goggles, he sees what his machine sees courtesy of a small camera mounted on its nose, beaming its feed directly to him. A large silver remote controller hangs from a lanyard around his neck, the machine operated by almost imperceptible movements of his thumbs on the two small joysticks. He brings it back towards us, slowly now, and lands it expertly on the wood next to my left foot, removes his goggles and grins at me. Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of first-person view (FPV) drone flying.

Nowak is the current United States National Drone Racing champion, having won the inaugural event last July in California. The Australian is the poster boy for FPV drone flying, a rapidly burgeoning aspect of the growing drone industry, including competition racing. Having flown line-of-sight remote-controlled vehicles and fixed-wing gliders since he was 14, the now 37-year-old is in high demand at events around the world. A year-and-a-half ago, he was mixing automotive lubricants in a factory. Today, he has sponsors, fans and a reputation as one of the world’s top drone pilots.

“It’s just something so different,” he says when I ask why drone racing has become so popular in such a short time. “When I go flying out in the park and I’m just flying around, people [see it and] go, ‘Oh, it’s a drone.’ Their reaction would be no different if it was a foam airplane or something like that.

“The moment I put the goggles on them though, they go, ‘Wow!’ It’s the same reaction every single time. And that’s the best way to explain it – why it’s taking off is because of that wow factor. It’s like playing a video game, it’s like the pod racers in Star Wars; it’s that extra dimension that we haven’t been able to access until now.”

Eliminating the lag time between drone-mounted cameras and the vision in the pilot’s goggles has been the game-changing improvement. Simon Jardine, head of drone consultancy company Aerobot, has been flying drones longer than anyone in Australia. His company provides advice and builds and modifies custom machines for the likes of the military and Surf Life Saving Australia. “Right now, technology is racing forward at such a pace, it’s hard to keep up,” Jardine says. “We can fly further, [we can fly] behind obstacles, with zero lag, so it’s instant: what you see is what you see.”

“You have to have zero latency,” agrees Paul Dumais, referring to potential delays in video transmission. Dumais is an aerospace engineer currently building a new prototype for Aerobot. “They’ve gotta be able to send a signal via a video transmitter wirelessly on a 5.8 gigahertz frequency, to his goggles, with zero latency. Or as little as possible. Because if you’re doing 140km/h, a couple of milliseconds [out] – you’re hitting something.”

Jardine, Dumais and I are talking in a park in Byron Bay. I’m handed the goggles and Jardine flies his drone while I see what it sees. The speed and manoeuvrability of the stripped-back machine is incredible; it’s easy to see how you’d come unstuck if the feedback to the goggles was even a tiny bit out.

In competitive drone racing FPV pilots race each other in real time around outdoor and indoor courses marked out by lights or with gates that must be passed through. Crashes aren’t uncommon, though some formats have multiple heats to provide racers with more than one shot at the finals.

Racing drones has become big business in the past 12 months. The inaugural event Nowak won was a relatively small affair, but since then the profile of this fledgling sport has grown almost as fast as the accompanying technology. In March this year, in Dubai, the World Drone Prix offered a $US1 million prize pool. This year’s US nationals in August have partnered with American sports cable channel ESPN. The World Drone Racing Championships will run in Hawaii in October. With money and interest growing rapidly, inevitably so are the politics, as a number of organisations jostle for control of the sport.

“Unfortunately, [these bodies] are all just sitting there arguing, and all the pilots want to do is race,” Nowak says. “We’re going, would you guys stop fighting and just let us have some fun?”

As a result, Nowak and a handful of other top pilots have begun to distance themselves from the organised racing aspect, preferring instead freestyle flying for its own satisfaction. “It’s kinda the same as skateboarders, they go out there and they make those videos,” he says, grinning. “You’ve got the rebels that just wanna make the videos and lead the lifestyle, then you’ve got the guys who wanna go to the competitions. I’m the guy that just wants to be the rebel and lead the lifestyle.”

Nowak has just returned from the US where he’s been filming episodes of Rotor Riot, a YouTube-based series not unlike Top Gear but with drones instead of cars. He and a handful of other pilots head to different locations such as abandoned warehouses, woodlands and even shooting ranges, and put their machines through their paces. Everything is filmed and uploaded to an audience of 35,000 subscribers.

YouTube has proved an incredibly important medium for these drone pilots – Nowak’s channel has 18,774 subscribers; American pilot “Mr Steele” (Steele Davis) has 29,712; and “Charpu” (Carlos Puertolas), the “godfather of FPV”, has 57,361. It was the popularity of Nowak’s channel that had him invited to the first drone nationals and attracted his sponsors.

Drones are increasingly common, being used for a variety of purposes from aerial filming to shark spotting. For a number of years, hobbyists have been flying line-of-sight drones – that is, kept in sight of the operator, without a camera and goggles – including some piloted via an iPad.

These racing drones are different. Their construction is stripped back to only what is necessary to maximise speed and efficiency. The technology is dazzling. Dumais talks to me about 32-bit boards, electronic speed controllers, and software such as Baseflight, OneShot and Cleanflight. Jardine is flying a Warpquad 6-inch on 25 volts – it weighs about half a kilogram, flies at a 55-degree forward angle, and can hit speeds of up to 140km/h, with but a five-minute battery life. Of course, their performance is only going to get better.

“In the very near future, perhaps before the end of the decade, the FPV experience will be hyper-realistic,” says Dumais. “Like you’re actually flying in the drone, but on acid. It’ll be the combination of high-end computer gaming to provide insane virtual reality tracks, superimposed over real physical terrain.” The sky is the limit – but only physically.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 30, 2016 as "Feelin’ kinda free". Subscribe here.

Samuel J. Fell
is a Byron Bay-based journalist and writer.

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