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

Australian T3 - - MAN VS TECH - PHOTOGRAPHY JOE BRANSTON WORDS CHRIS BARNES

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.

EASY GLIDER

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.

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