Faster than a Speeding Bullet
FPV Drone Racing
Do you remember Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace? Yeah, I know many people have a deep dislike for that film, but there is one part of it that almost everyone agrees was pretty cool – the pod racing.
In the film there’s a competition where people race hovering “pods” around a track at insane speeds. The twists, turns, and acceleration are so fast that mere mortals aren’t really able to keep up.
Well, what if I told you that there was actually a real-life sport that was very much like Star Wars’ pod racing? It’s called FPV drone racing and it may very well be your next hobby.
FPV is short for “first-person view” and is a system where the pilot of the drone doesn’t control it by watching from afar, but actually pilots directly via the nose-mounted camera. They do this either by watching a screen or wearing a pair of video goggles. Obviously, the video goggles give you the most visceral experience and get around problems such as sun glare, but they represent a more expensive solution than screen-based FPV.
The easiest way to explain FPV racing is by showing and not telling. Here is a great example of what FPV drone racing is all about:
Before You Begin
A racing drone is not a small investment to make. You’re looking at as much as a $1000 initial investment, although you can do it in stages. From there you’ll have regular maintenance and repair costs.
The point is that you don’t want to learn how to fly using a $500 racing drone. You WILL crash it almost immediately. There’s also no reason at all to do this. Micro and nano drones for under $50 have the same control scheme and need the same basic skills to pilot successfully.
I’ve put together a list of mini reviews for quadcopters under $50 which you’re welcome to check out. Buy a few of these and learn the ropes without the fear of financial ruin. Until you can confidently manage one of these little guys you should stay far away from the hot rods.
Pre-built or DIY?
When it comes to racing drones one of the first questions you have to answer for yourself is if you want to buy a ready (or almost ready) to fly kit or if you’d rather build a setup for yourself.
If you aren’t much of a tweaker or tinkerer, the pre-built option may be best for you, at least to begin with. However, in the long run you may find that building your own racing drone will allow you to tweak it to your style and performance needs. It’s also useful to be comfortable with the various parts and systems of your drone, since you’ll likely need to repair crash damage and worn-out systems. It’s time-consuming and expensive to have someone else do it for you.
Playing the Part
A quadcopter has quite a few components.
First of all there’s the frame. This is the part which all other components attach to. Frames can be made from various materials and a good frame will be light and strong. Some high-end frames are even made of carbon fiber – although, of course, these are quite expensive.
There are also four motors, props, and electronic speed controllers. These are the components that generate the lift for flight and maneuvering.
The flight controller is the tiny computer, the brain and nervous system of the drone, that contains the many sensors the drone uses to know it’s attitude and other factors related to flight control. It usually has accelerometers, gyros, and perhaps even GPS sensors built into it. A reliable flight controller can make the difference between a squirrelly drone and one that corners and flies as if on rails.
Of course, the drone also needs a power source and lithium battery packs are currently the power source of choice.
You’ll also need an onboard camera for the first-person view and the FPV goggles or monitor to receive its signal. You need a transmitter to control the drone itself, a charger for the batteries, and a soldering iron, since everything has to be soldered together.
Like other racing sports, drone racing has vehicle classes. If you want to enter your drone in a particular class you need to conform to the rules. Luckily, most drone races only have two classes.
There’s a beginner class (known as “spec” class) that requires the use of a drone with a three-cell lithium battery and props with a five-inch diameter.
Then there’s the open class for experienced racers that basically has no limit on what you can use within a specified weight limit.
That’s more or less it. Of course your local racing organization may have their own custom rules, but these two are the most common.
There are a couple of different race types. Rotorcross, for example, is where two or more drones race a course. The order they finish in is the order they are ranked. There’s also just a straight up drag race over 100m. Fastest acceleration and top speed wins. Time trial races have drones racing the course one by one; whoever sets the fastest course time wins.
Drones are not toys; yes, not even those micro drones. You can hurt people, animals, and property by flying outside of your abilities, and a high performance drone can cause potentially life-threatening injuries.
It’s therefore important that you start slow, only fly where it is safe to do so, and respect the local laws regarding remote-controlled aircraft.
There are a few general rules about drone flying you should always observe even if local laws don’t specify them.
It’s very important that you don’t fly over people or animals, as a falling drone can cause serious injury.
When handling a drone by hand, make sure the battery is disconnected.
Make sure you read up on the proper handling of LiPo (lithium polymer) batteries. These can explode or flame out in some cases and are a hazardous material.
You should only race in properly organized races; don’t be a “street” racer.
The most important thing is to have fun. Drone flying communities are springing up all over the globe and are generally filled with friendly people who want to make drone racing a mainstream competition. You can rely on others in these groups, whether online or in person, to give you good advice about the ins and outs of drone racing. Who knows? Perhaps one day when drone racing goes big you could be the next racing superstar.