The fast and furious world of underground drone racing
Chad Nowak describes himself as an aviation nutter. For 25 years he's been flying remote controlled aircraft and full-sized sail planes, fuelled by a fascination for anything that glides through the air. But this interest went up a notch when he came across a Youtube video of an emerging sport known as FPV (first person view) drone racing. Fast forward 12 months and his home in Queensland, Australia, is covered in half-built quadcopters and loose parts. Last weekend, Nowak flew to Melbourne to take on like-minded racers in an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of the city.
Check out our video report below to see the drones in action.
"It just totally blew me away," says Nowak, recalling the first time he stumbled across FPV drone racing. "Two weeks later I bought my first kit, built my first quad, met up with some of the other guys flying here and the rest is history. It's like a disease."
A big part of the sport's addictiveness and growing popularity can be attributed to the FPV goggles worn by its competitors. With antennas sprouting out of the top, these stream video from the drones' front-facing camera as they fly through the air, some as fast as 100 mph (160 km/h). This results in something of an out-of-body experience, a unique mix of virtual reality and video gaming brought to life.
"FPV is such a different, immersive experience, everyone's wanting to be that Star Wars pod racer, going in between the hills," says Nowak. "When I fly full-sized aircraft I see things and think, 'oh it would be so fun to dive in between that,' but I can't because it's my life at stake and you've got to take it a bit more seriously. With these thing I can now do that. And if I get it wrong, worst case, I break a frame and I have to build a new one."
The dilapidated building where the racers compete is a sight to behold. Colorful, freshly painted street art coats the walls. Broken glass crunches underfoot as do piles of rubbish and thick, solid mounds of bird crap. Decrepit sofas can be seen in side rooms shooting off the main arena and a lone graffiti artist plies his trade quietly in the far corner. Its undesirable nature suits the drone racers perfectly. Here is a group of people that, for a few hours at least, just want to be left alone to do their thing.
The racecourse snakes its way up and down a huge open room with a ceiling hanging low enough to present a threat and rows of pylons lined with red tape providing the race barriers. Inside the track is a sectioned off area for pilots and spectators. Here, people gather around a large viewing monitor broadcasting vision from a drone's camera as it zips through the warehouse. Some have brought along FPV goggles of their own so they can tune into one of the channels to watch their favorite racers in action. Other onlookers lounge in camping chairs and nurse cups of hot tea while off-duty racers wrangle soldering irons and tinker with their machines in the background.
There's nothing at stake here except bragging rights, but combine that with the adrenaline of FPV racing and you'll get a bunch of people entirely prepared to push their machines to the limit. Regularly throughout the afternoon the buzz of drones was punctuated with loud crashes as frames smashed into the walls and ceiling, followed by the sound of rotors and electronics scraping across the floor. Even for the more experienced racers, damage and on-the-spot repairs are inescapable.
Daniel Lee, head of Australian drone-maker PrestoPegasus, was behind the joysticks for the most spectacular crash of the day. During a race, another pilot switched on their drone which happened to be tuned into his video channel, creating a blackout in his goggles and sending his drone upward into the roof. The impact busted the drone's LED lighting strips, two props, a speed controller, a capacitor and the frame itself.
"This is the worst crash I've ever had, so I still need to figure out all the other components that I need to repair," said Lee, seated at a makeshift repair station littered with frames, rotors and other spare parts. "Hopefully I can fix this in about an hour and get it flying again."
To get up and running in the world of FPV drone racing isn't as expensive as you might think. Popular camera drones like DJI's Phantoms and Parrot's Bepop might be near the US$1,000 mark, but the DIY quadcopters designed to go as fast as possible come in a fair bit cheaper, according to one racer going by the name of "Covert".
"You can start off with something that flies as quick as these ones, where the flying part (drone) costs around AUD$250 (US$200)," he explains. "You can get goggles for AUD$30 (US$23), a receiver for another $30 and a transmitter for $40, so you can be flying for AUD$300 to $400 (US$230 to $310).
With relatively low barriers to entry (that will only become lower as the technology advances), its easy to see why the racing community is excited about the direction things are heading. An obscure and underground hobby practiced mainly in dingy warehouses and empty carparks is well on its way to becoming a legitimate sport.
Known as one of the faster pilots among Australia's drone racing collective, Nowak has landed himself a sponsor who is bankrolling an upcoming trip to the US. There he'll compete among a field of 200 pilots from around the world in the first national Drone Racing Championships. With US$25,000 in cash up for grabs, Nowak says its something he never thought would happen, and he's not taking his preparation lightly.
"I know there's going to be racing, but I don't know what kind of track," he says. "I'm building up a whole heap of different quads to suit different types. Because just like different sized race cars with different engines suit different tracks and some are faster than others, you've got different types of quads that suit different types of tracks. One quad might be really good at flying fast, but doesn't handle very well. One might be really good on an open track and one will be really good on a tight track, so it depends."
They don't all offer up such significant prize money, but there are a number of FPV racing leagues popping up around the world. Last year we saw a group of drone pilots take their vehicles to a dense forest in the French Alps, darting through the trees to be the first one across the finish line. Drone racers are also on the rise in England and the US, and though they may be competitors when the goggles are on, with goggles off they are all hopeful of the same goal, to see the sport's elite honing their craft in a professional arena.
"I really can see professional 'athletes' flying these things for a living, just like racing car drivers get paid to race cars," says Nowak. "Who knows how it will pan out, but I can see that happening, it's a fun sport. Everyone that I show this to goes, 'Wow! that's something different!' So you can see there's a lot of interest there."