Drone racing soars beyond hobbyists

Drone racing soars beyond hobbyists

Drone racing soars beyond hobbyists

On a cool October night, after the stores in a shopping mall had closed, six young drone racers gathered in a subterranean parking garage to hone their aviation skills. Using remote control joysticks, they navigated small X-shaped drones around pylons and beneath shopping carts, each vying for the lead.

The young men all work steady jobs, but racing drones, they said, has become a consuming new passion. “It’s all I think about,” said Richard Howarth, one of the pilots. “I feel like we are at the beginning of something big.”

When an emerging sport is said to be underground, the term is rarely meant to be this literal. The pilots are in the forefront of the nascent but growing sport of drone racing, which, in just over a year, has spiralled from scattered handfuls of hobbyists to a promising new competition. Race organisers are hailing the potential for televised races and financial purses.

“We see this as the future,” said Charles Zab-lan, chief operating officer of the International Drone Racing Association, a league of more than 500 members, based in Los Angeles, created in April. “This can be just like the X Games, motocross racing and Red Bull air racing.”

Perhaps, but at the moment, drone racing remains in its formative stages. Among the hurdles, Zablan said: Competition rules are still being figured out; the spectator experience is flaw-ed; and no one knows how the sport will be managed, or by whom. Courses are mostly set up in open fields, but that is likely to change as groups seek more exotic venues like forests, abandoned buildings or even World Heritage sites.

“We are at the pioneering stage,” Zablan said. “We don’t even know what this is yet or what it could be, but we know it’s fun and cool.”

In the Los Angeles area, which some are calling the mecca of drone racing because of the large number of pilots who live and fly there, the International Drone Racing Association held its first championship on November 7. Called the California Cup, the event lured several hundred spectators who stood behind nets inside a cavernous building and watched racers compete at the SoCal Maker Convention in California.

With the incessant angry wasp buzz of drones in the air, racers competed in three events, one each for drones 250 and 300 millimeters wide, and a freestyle event in which points were awarded for manoeuvres like flips, turns and loops.

Pilots navigate the drones using a remote control with two joysticks that control altitude, speed and direction. They wear large goggles that broadcast live standard definition video from a camera mounted on the front of the drone. It is this first-person view technology (FPV) that has given the sport a major boost, allowing pilots to feel as if they are in the drone. 

The drone frames are made of light but sturdy material like carbon fibre, and are little more than small platforms for motors, a battery, electronic circuitry and four to six propellers. Most are of the four-motor variety and are thus better known among hobbyists as quadcopters.

“Three years ago, this technology was so expensive, so unattainable, that only the professional cinematographer could afford it,” Zablan said. Now, he said, a full racing kit with FPV goggles can be bought for about $1,000.

The drone industry as a whole, experts said, is experiencing rapid growth, with 2015 expected to be a defining year. A report released in June by the Consumer Electronics Association predicted the US market for consumer drones would reach $105 million in revenue this year, up more than 50 per cent from 2014. Unit sales, with expectations for a strong Christmas season, may be near 700,000 (60 per cent increase).

At the California Cup qualifying race in San Diego in October, the racers’ point-of-view video could be seen through goggle headsets. Each drone broadcasts at a frequency that can be dialled into, but for those who watch through the ungainly goggles without having their own thumbs on the controls, the experience can be disorienting, if not nauseating, as least initially.

And because of the inherent technological challenges of broadcasting live video at high speed with a tiny camera, the image is often grainy and easily distorted by radio interference. “We’re not getting the quality that is the standard right now for television broadcast,” Zablan said. “That’s the key; a high-definition quality.”

Hard to follow
Which gets to one of the issues that could affect drone racing’s ultimate success as a mainstream spectator sport. Racing drones can fly at speeds up to 70 mph, making them very hard for spectators without FPV goggles to see. Even when they fly slower and are performing manoeuvres just a few feet above the ground, discerning exactly what they are doing can be difficult.

“It’s like watching two hummingbirds zip around the yard,” said Keith Robertson, a drone racer from Palos Verdes, California.

This is a reason the future of drone racing may be online rather than in live competitions. Many of the racers here record their drones’ acrobatics using an additional camera like a GoPro mounted on top, creating video that can be downloaded later off the camera. The best moments can then be edited into a high-resolution video with music and posted online.

“The biggest accelerator of this sport has been Instagram and YouTube,” said Zablan, who readily admitted to the sport’s shortcomings and said that efforts were underway to improve the spectator experience.

In fact, the popularity of online drone video has minted several minor celebrities. Some videos of Carlos Puertolas, a pilot who goes by the name Charpu, have more than 1 million views. In one of his most popular videos, Puertolas’ drone flies through open windows and down long corridors of an abandoned hospital in Spain. He flies it beneath cars and through tight spaces seemingly impossible to navigate.

“Charpu is as close to a god in FPV, I think, as you can get,” said Robertson, one of the competing pilots. “Charpu is the one who started it all – at least for me. I think his videos really inspired a lot of people to get into this hobby.”

Puertolas said he was drawn to the sport after years of competing in skateboarding and in-line skating. “To me, it’s like an extreme sport but for older people, so you don’t hurt yourself,” he said. At the California Cup finals in Pomona, Puertolas, who took second in the 250-millimeter competition, seemed satisfied that he had maintained his reputation as one of the sport’s more promising fliers.  

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