“It’s almost like Mario Kart on steroids,” says Mike Welch, Cincinnati Quad Racer. He’s talking about a six-feed television setup, but it’s a sentiment that can probably be applied to the entire first-person drone racing enterprise.
First person drone racing is still on the margins as a sport, but it seems like every new advancement in drone technology — smaller on-board computers, higher-definition racing goggles, cheaper controllers — triggers the attention of a new group of would-be racers or spectators. When Welch started racing, about 3 years ago, there were only 4-5 pilots at their weekly racing sessions. Now, Welch helps run a Facebook group for the Cincinnati Quad Racers with over 800 members, and they hold biweekly races that regularly attract over 20 pilots.
Drone races, especially indoor ones, can be overwhelming. It’s a little like visiting a nightclub. Most indoor courses dim their lights, so it’s easier to keep track of the drones’ bright LEDs, and course obstacles can be marked with flashing arrows or circles. What’s more, the drones themselves move with seemingly unnatural speed: “They can accelerate straight up like a rocket. Going forward, the top speeds of these things are 60-80 miles per hour,” says Welch. They’re very light, so they can get to speed very quickly. And they’re using that acceleration to quickly move through and around 5 by 5 foot PVC gates.
A pilot has to put all of these distractions out of their head. The only way they can manage such speeds without crashing, or without getting dizzy from their drone-view goggles, is to focus entirely on what’s in front of you. “You are part of the drone,” says Welch, “You just ignore everything else around you, you just concentrate on what you’re seeing. If you lose your concentration, you’re going to crash.”
Even so, the best pilots still crash. It’s then that they transform from pilots into engineers. “It’s very common to see, between races, people popping out a soldering iron, fixing something on their board.” For Welch, this is a feature of drone racing, not a bug. Drone racing as a sport is still in its infancy: the technology didn’t even exist four years ago, and the technology is evolving so quickly now, pilots spend as much time on Amazon or in hobby shops as they do actually flying. The sport is still for makers, and it’s still about finding the best engineer as it is about finding the smoothest pilot.
Mike Welch and the Cincinnati Quad Racers will be at the Cincinnati Mini Maker Faire both days, September 15 and 16. They’ll hold both indoor and outdoor races and be on-hand to discuss how you can get involved with drone racing at the ground floor.