‘Fighter jet’ pi­lots land in Mata­mata

Matamata Chronicle - - Classified - ADAM DUDDING

Close up, it looks rather like a ro­man san­dal to which some­one has sol­dered the in­sides of a toaster and glued a fist­ful of plas­tic pro­pel­lers from a toy plane.

From a dis­tance? Well, it still looks like a ro­man san­dal re­ally, just a ro­man san­dal that’s fly­ing pre­cise loops and dives al­most too fast to fol­low while whin­ing like a gi­ant, an­gry hor­net, and the pro­pel­lers are spin­ning so fast they’ve be­come blurry discs of colour.

And on a day like this, at the New Zealand MiniQuad Champs in Mata­mata, the fly­ing san­dal will be per­form­ing its mad loops and fighter-jet dives along­side five or so sim­i­lar craft, as they hur­tle around a field full of flags and hoops un­der the re­mote con­trol of the ‘‘pi­lots’’ seated in camp­ing chairs off to one side, twid­dling the sticks on their ra­dio re­mote con­trols.

These speed­ing mar­vels are quad­copters, a sub­cat­e­gory of the fly­ing drones tak­ing over the world.

Small and light and with bat­ter­ies that can spit out all their en­ergy in just a few min­utes, these cute lit­tle hand-sol­dered and as­sem­bled de­vices hur­tle about at up to 150km/h. And that’s the at­trac­tion for many of the 16 pi­lots who came to Mata­mata for the race­day or­gan­ised by the grandly named Ro­torCross NZ Drone Rac­ing League.

Or­gan­iser Mat Welling­ton, 44, says some rac­ers moved over from model aero­planes. Oth­ers just like fid­dling with tech­nol­ogy. But per­haps a third are for­mer video gamers who found they could get the same adrenalin buzz in the real world.

Auck­land engi­neer­ing stu­dent Stephan Knapp, 21 got hooked on watching mul­ti­copters and drones on YouTube, then re­alised they were get­ting cheap enough that he could buy his own.

What makes it so great, says Knapp, is that this is ‘‘FPV’’ rac­ing: first-per­son view. Rather than watching his or her craft from the ground, an FPV pilot straps on a head­set and re­lies en­tirely on the video trans­mis­sion from a cam­era on the quad.

‘‘It feels like you’re ac­tu­ally sit­ting in­side the quad­copter. Fly­ing through re­ally tiny spa­ces in a thing that can go at 150km/h with heaps of power makes it feel like you’re fly­ing a fighter jet al­most. Every time I do a race I have a bit of an adrenalin rush.’’

Chris Mc­Don­ald – aka Macca, fly­ing name ‘‘Dronewolf’’ – has driven seven hours from Kaeo in the Far North. He’s 37 and is, he says, ‘‘a full­time FPV pilot’’.

Well, sort of. Rather, he funds his rac­ing ob­ses­sion with com­mer­cial aerial pho­tog­ra­phy and some part-time satel­lite-TV in­stal­la­tion, and has per­suaded a man­u­fac­turer to spon­sor him by giv­ing him their lat­est FPVrac­ing kit.

The League used to have one woman pilot, and in the US one of the best freestyle drone fly­ers is a woman, but to­day’s pi­lots, rang­ing from 15 to mid­dle age, are all male. There are a few women spec­ta­tors though.

Jo Bur­son, a re­tail man­ager from Kerik­eri, is here to sup­port her mate Macca. She likes the speed, the loops, and the crashes (most pi­lots bring spare parts and a sol­der­ing iron).

‘‘They’re like lit­tle mos­qui­tos. They’re cute.’’

Welling­ton fi­nan­cial an­a­lyst Fran Roul­ston, 33, is here with her racer hus­band Grieg. Last year they went to the world champs at Kualoa Ranch in Hawaii, the same place where Juras­sic Park was filmed.

That was great fun, says Roul­ston, though some­thing of a sham­bles. ESPN came to film the event, thus giv­ing it le­git­i­macy, but the ESPN video equip­ment in­ter­fered with the ra­dio sig­nals for the FPV gog­gles, screw­ing up a num­ber of the races.

Drone rac­ing is a brand new sport, says Welling­ton, only made pos­si­ble by the sud­den col­lapse in the price of the on­board mi­cro­com­put­ers that trans­late a pilot’s al­ter­ations of the rel­a­tive speed of the four pro­pel­lers, to steer and ac­cel­er­ate the craft.

Five years ago that com­puter would have cost about $3000; now it costs about $30. This means you can now get the full kit you need for not much more than $1000.

Plus you’ll prob­a­bly want to have a spare drone for race day. Af­ter all, when you hit the ground at 150km/h af­ter a failed pow­er­roll on the last lap of your race, some­times there’s only so much you can do with a sol­der­ing iron in the mid­dle of a field in Mata­mata.

JA­SON DORDAY/FAIRFAX NZ

Quad­copter pilot Gryf­fin Cook, 15, tests the video feed from his quad­copter dur­ing a break be­tween races.

JA­SON DORDAY/FAIRFAX NZ

Stephan Knapp, aka ‘‘Steve FPV’’, Auck­land engi­neer­ing stu­dent.

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