PRO DRONE RACING
FIRST-PERSON VIEW DRONE RACING IS TAKING OFF IN 2017. BUT HOW EASY IS IT TO FLY AT OVER 120KM/H, LET ALONE RACE? T3’ S DRONE EXPERT TAKES THE CONTROLS
How does a drone race work? In the case of the DRL, a group of highly-skilled pilots duke it out, centimetres apart and flying at speeds of up to 145km/h, through tight, neon-lit 3D courses in abandoned buildings and stadiums. Each pilot wears first-person view (FPV) goggles, viewing a live feed from the camera on-board their drone. It’s like being inside a very realistic video game.
I’m determined to try this. But, if I’m to become a successful (and cashed-up) drone racer, I need to find a pro willing to show me the ropes. A few calls later, I have a DRL training session in the diary.
KEEP IT S IM-PLE
With the big day looming, my nerves kick in. What if FPV flying makes me throw up? What if I give someone a buzz cut with a drone? Thankfully the DRL’s free simulator (for Mac/PC) comes with a training program and official DRL tracks to prepare noobs like me for action.
I’ve tested many camera drones for T3; usually they’re loaded with anti-collision sensors, GPS positioning and other tech to keep them airborne. Racing-spec drones dispense with such luxuries, placing control over all axes of movement in the hands of the pilot. Looks like I’ll need to put in some serious hours on the DRL simulator first...
I boot up Apple’s new MacBook Pro, planting my index finger on the Touch ID pad to log in. With the simulator loaded, the Pro’s speedy components make light work of the action on screen, neon colours popping on the vibrant widecolour Retina display.
With my FrSky Taranis X9D Plus radio controller still on the courier’s van, I opt to fly with a PS4 DualShock controller.
My simulator experience in a nutshell? Put it this way: I have little confidence about flying a real racer.
Rocking up to Allianz Park in London, I’m introduced to Matt Evans, professional drone racer for the DRL and the only UK pilot for the 2017 season. He’s a rock star in this world, and a brief demo of his insane freestyle skills – from tight figureeights around the rugby posts, to the aptly-named ‘Puker’ – suggests he’s one to watch.
This year, the DRL has introduced the Racer3 drone, which all pilots fly to ensure a level playing field. It glows with 209 LEDs and is loaded with top tech, including a high-end F3 flight controller chip and SPI MPU6000 stabilising gyro. A custom made five-cell Pulse battery generates 7,000kg of static thrust, resulting in 0 to 128km/h in under a second. While the Racer3 isn’t commercially available, I’ll be put in charge of one today. I hope the carbon fibre frame and tough polycarbonate shell are ready for me!
Kicking off, Matt grabs the chunky FrSky Taranis X9D Plus controller, complete with LCD telemetry display, eight programmable switches and haptic feedback, to demonstrate the basics of hovering. He makes minute movements on the quad bearing-mounted sticks to keep the Racer3 sitting poker straight in mid-air.
Now it’s my turn, and I’m feeling the pressure. I get airborne, but my clumsy thumbs have the Racer3 swaying wildly. I kick myself for not spending more time with the simulator. Matt tweaks the controller’s stick sensitivity and, with a less ham-fisted approach and faster reflexes, I regain control of the drone. Matt is impressed and suggests we get the FPV goggles. Game on!
THE CHUNDER GAMES
With gates and cones laid out in a figureof-eight track, Matt dons his Fat Shark Dominator HD3 FPV goggles. These particular goggles are popular among drone pilots for their clear 800 x 600 SVGA display and 16:9 option in HDMI mode. I go for Fat Shark’s Transformer goggles instead. They’re $380 cheaper than the HD3 ones, and the detachable LCD monitor can be tripod-mounted if you can’t stomach the full FPV experience.
We both tune into the Racer3’s camera feed and Matt flies so smoothly it’s like the drone is attached to rails. FPV feels like riding up front on a rollercoaster, but with zero G force. It’s bizarre, but incredibly immersive. After three minutes the battery is dead. Time for a fresh one, then my turn.
Flying straight ahead with goggles isn’t particularly tricky, and I adjust to the first-person view quickly, but I revert to over-enthusiastic, fumbling movements as soon as I’m required to steer. One minute I’m barely a metre off the ground, the next I’m getting an aerial view of the pitch. I have to remind myself there’s a 140km/h bladed weapon hurtling through the air somewhere above me.
I swap to the HD3 goggles and try again. The image is clearer, the goggles more comfortable and my overall perspective is dramatically improved. I manage to stay airborne for longer, making corrective manoeuvres more instinctively than before. I line up to a gate, hit the throttle and power forward. I glide through, but the excitement clouds my concentration and the Racer3 plummets, spinning across the turf.
With some perseverance, I start hitting gates with greater precision and speed, throwing in passable turns where necessary. I’ve definitely caught the drone racing bug but, as far as this mission goes, I’m a long way off racing for real.
FLYING WITHOUT WINGS
It’s now a few days later and I’m determined to continue developing my skills in my own time. I find a safe, remote space and unbox the ViFly R220 drone and FlySKY i6-VF controller bundle. The drone’s 220mm carbon fibre frame is smaller than the Racer3, and the supplied Li-Po battery powers eight minutes of airtime, making the R220 the perfect practice tool. FXT’s Marvel Vision FPV goggles are a breeze to set up, too, and, while the 480 x 272 pixel resolution doesn’t match the Fat Shark V3’s they’re more than adequate to improve with.
I want to show my friends my newfound skills, so I strap GoPro’s Hero5 Black action cam to the ViFly’s supplied mount and set it rolling with the “GoPro, start recording” voice command. I’m impressed with how much control I’ve learned in a short time, and the GoPro’s 4K footage looks epic.
Whilst I won’t be turning pro anytime soon, this has been a fun experience and I’ve started watching the Drone Racing League 2017 on ESPN through Foxtel – the finals held in Boston in August are going to be electrifying! In the meantime, you’ll find me practising my inverted backflips ready for the big time – DRL ’18.