Little props buzz at different pitches, lifting drones into the chilly air over César Chávez Park on a gray, breezy day in Berkeley, California. A dozen pilots prep equipment on the open grassy space that juts into the San Francisco Bay, replacing prop blades or setting up their first-person-video (FPV) rigs.
“Who just turned on?” calls out Elliott Kember, who’s getting video interference. “Someone’s on my channel.”
Nearby, a series of PVC poles wrapped in foam pool noodles demarcate a make-shift racecourse a couple hundred feet in length. There are several hairpin switchbacks, two 90-degree turns, and a low arch, all marked in bright orange so the pilots can see them through cameras mounted on their specialized drones.
The group, a Meetup called FPV Explorers & Racers, formed last summer. They get together about once a week, usually on Sundays, to hang out and fly drones.
With their gear finally ready, four racers set their drones on starting mats beneath the arch. Each dons goggles that show real-time video from keychain cameras mounted on their crafts. Somebody counts down from three and the drones lift off and rip around the first turn.
They’re fast — most can exceed 50 mph — but what’s more impressive is their acceleration. They corner like a drift car; body rotating to face the direction they want to go while the drone is still sliding sideways through the air. The racers sit on the ground or in folding chairs, concentrating only on the controllers in their hands and the horizon.
It’s a race to four laps, but really, it’s a race of submission. One drone crashes into the ground, tumbling like a downhill skier; another gets lost and flies off course. (FPV has virtually no peripheral vision so if a pilot loses sight of the route markers it’s very difficult to find them again.) The two remaining contenders fly around the course a few times before one — Kember’s — laps the other and is declared the winner by consensus.
FPV racing is the hot new thing in competitive drone flying. Over the past year or so, more and more pilots have started building racers. The crafts are typically small, compact quadcopters, measuring less than 10 inches diagonally from rotor to rotor.
It’s taking off partly because it’s fast, fun, and accessible. People can imagine doing it themselves, says Carlos Puertolas, who is described by many as the best drone racer in the Bay Area, if not the world. The technology is getting cheaper and easier; a pilot now can get his or her start for a few hundred dollars, and out-of-the-box racers are starting to become available.
Puertolas, who is sponsored by Luminier, flies their frames, produces video, and consults on design for the racing quads the company makes. But still he recommends building your own: “There’s nothing wrong with getting one that is already built, but you get a lot of knowledge from building it yourself, not only to be able to repair it but to be able to troubleshoot the problems that you have, and understand what’s wrong.”
Last fall, European enthusiasts calling themselves Airgonay became internet famous for videos featuring FPV drones ripping around a course, set up in a French forest, at nearly 70 mph. Like FPV Explorers in the U.S., the group is made up of people from varied backgrounds and professions who get together whenever they can to race informally.
“This is actually our lunch break. This is what we do every day,” says Airgonay founder Hervé Pellarin, who does marketing for FPV companies Fat Shark and ImmersionRC. “You don’t need much space to organize something very amazing for the pilots, as an experience. Just a piece of forest, trees, and path, and you can have fun all day.”
Like many racers, Pellarin overpowers his drones, substituting larger motors and rotors and higher voltage four-cell batteries for the standard three, which enables greater speed and thrust. Whatʼs more, it means the drones can maneuver quicker, lifting over and accelerating around obstacles.
“We think [racing] has real meaning,” Pellarin says. “We’re sick of hearing about drones just because they’re a toy of the NSA, or carrying bombs, or killing people. Drones can be fun; drones can be a mechanical sport for the next century. It requires skills, it requires engineering, it requires piloting.”
Such competition can also lead to real advances in design, mechanics, and technique. Leagues and contests offer a sort of Darwinian incentive to building better drones, and require competing against — or collaborating with — people with different ideas.
Eli D’Elia and Marque Cornblatt, better known as the founders of the drone fighting ring Game of Drones, have gotten the bug as well. “FPV racing is a real visceral experience. It basically makes anybody who can do it kind of like Superman for 5 to 10 minutes,” says D’Elia, who has a long history in action sports and in video games. To him (and many others), drones are bringing these worlds together. “In my mind, it has completely replaced video games, and has become my new addiction,” he says. “If I could fly all day, first person video, I would.”
When D’Elia and Cornblatt first started battling, there was an immediate need to rethink the drones so they wouldn’t get quite so devastated upon collision. “It was kind of like the crucible of drone combat sports that birthed Game of Drones,” says Cornblatt. “You saw every kind of engineering solution you could imagine, really high tech, really low tech. The problem was, no matter what, they all fell apart.”
They tried frames of laser-cut cardboard, waterjet-cut carbon fiber, and Home Depot hardware; and they eventually realized they needed something truly durable: a military-grade polymer alloy body, which they now sell. “It’s through the fighting, it’s through the racing, and it’s through going out every weekend and experiencing the challenges for the consumer that we’ve come up with a list of objectives that we really plan on solving,” Cornblatt continues. He figures they can simplify drone racers down to a low profile, slick, crash-resistant sliver.
If they do, they’ll be competing against Hovership’s 3D-printed, 250-class racing drone called the MHQ2, and a newer laser-cut, carbon-fiber version called the ZUUL. It’s only been in the past 12 months, creator Steve Doll says, that small drones — 250 millimeter mainly, though the 150 class is growing in popularity — became powerful enough to support the FPV gear needed to race.
Doll, who’s been building and flying drones for years, gave the MHQ an H-shaped body, rather than the more typical “x” or “+” shape, so the keychain-size security camera, linked to a 5.8GHz band video transmitter, can sit in front, out of the way of the 5-inch rotors. Lightweight with no lag, keychain cams are the preferred choice. They also have a good light sensor, meaning they respond quickly to changes such as going from shade to sun.
Doll doesn’t see a lot of carryover from racing to industry, which has been focused of late on GPS guidance, obstacle avoidance, and artificial intelligence, rather than piloting and first-person. “It’s really just a hobbyist thing, taking this thing and having fun with it,” he says. “All these motors and speed controllers were designed for R/C airplanes. It’s all still very much a hack, in a way. We’re kind of just making this up as we go along.”
The same is true of technique and rules. “The best rule,” says Pellarin of Airgonay, “is no rules.” Still, while it may not be explicitly prohibited, racers tend to avoid contact (unlike drone combat), as any collision with an opponent is likely to knock both drones out of the race.
As this all gets dialed in, Elliott Kember and fellow racer Tyler Koblasa see a niche for a tuning and support company. Koblasa races a hexacopter called the TBS Gemini, which was designed by Team Blacksheep to be ready out-of-the-box. But between mounting hardware, preparing flight controllers, receivers, and video, downloading software, matching rotors, and dealing with technical difficulties, it took around four hours to set up, he says. “There’s a tremendous amount of time to get up to speed with the products out there, how they work, dealing with the concept of a flight controller, PIDs [proportional, interval, and derivative values], and the receiver binding. It’s a nightmare.”
Kember’s and Koblasa’s company, West Coast Rotors, plans to offer customization and personalization of four popular models, as well as make them race ready. As of January, they had a backlog of orders, though they’re approaching the company as a side project.
One of the reasons out-of-the-box racing drones aren’t ready — and why such a service could be very popular — is that there is still so much experimenting going on. At every event I attended, racers brought cases full of components, spare parts, and extra batteries and spent 90% of their time getting ready and 10% racing. “We’re still finding that sweet spot between the frame parts and the motor and the FPV gear,” says Cornblatt. “There really isn’t a clear winner yet, everyone’s kind of still figuring it out.”
“Half of this is building them, half is tuning them,” concurs Kurt Somerville, who flies a mini deadcat-style quadcopter (opening photo, above). Its frame, which he bought from a maker in China, is sort of a hybrid, with the front rotors situated straight across the frame, and the back splayed out behind, which he says is good for stability and hard banking, though it sacrifices some power due to smaller rotors.
“The cool thing right now is [FPV racing] is super underground,” Somerville says. “You have these super close-knit groups that meet up to fly whenever they can.” But it’s only a matter of time, he adds, until we start to see organized — perhaps even televised — leagues.
Several groups are working toward making that a reality. Pellarin is recruiting pilots from France, Holland, and the U.S. (including Puertolas) to form a loose, informal league on an international scale. And in January, Doll was one of about 25 fliers who participated in a multirace event hosted by Aerial Grand Prix at the Apollo XI RC airfield in Los Angeles. An international organization with more than seven chapters, Aerial GP will be holding races throughout 2015 in the Netherlands, France, Australia, Mexico, and elsewhere, and hopes to further standardize the sport.
Puertolas also anticipates more organization in the near future. “I can see this being a big thing,” he says. “I never saw somebody who tried it, tried the glasses on, and wasn’t like, ‘whoa!’”