Drone racing provides both thrills and spills
It was just another morning in the park for Chris and Cadence Haskins. Chris arranged his 11-year-old daughter’s flying station — lawnchair, video goggles, controller and antenna.
Cadence began piloting a drone across Boise’s Sycamore Park and through a row of trees like a slalom course. The goggles showed her the view captured by a camera on the front of the drone (called first-person view, or FPV). And little kids wandered over from the playground to inquire about her new sport — drone racing — as they always do.
“To me, it feels like I am in the drone,” said Cadence, whose pilot name is KrazyK. “… I’m inside, flying it.”
Drone racing has become a worldwide phenomenon — a race last week in Dubai featured $1 million in prize money — with a growing niche in the Treasure Valley.
Chris Haskins (pilot name: Hazak) finished sixth in the Drone Racing League’s December race at the Miami Dolphins’ stadium. Conrad Miller of Boise (pilot name: Furadi) finished fifth.
Miller began racing in 2014 and started a Facebook group (Boise FPV) that provides a community for pilots to share videos, tips and organize races. His 12-year-old son, Sorell (pilot name: Zero), races, too.
“Probably the first real drone race was drone nationals last (summer),” said E.J. Duarte (pilot name:AmpedOut), who designs racing drones for the company he founded, Boise-based Thrust-UAV. “That’s really when drone racing exploded. There was racing before that, but not at that scale. Less than a year later, and drone racing is on an enormous scale, and it’s only growing exponentially.”
Miller traveled to Dubai to compete in last week’s World Drone Prix. Thrust-UAV entered one of its drones, too.
This week, Haskins and Miller are scheduled to compete in California. Cadence and Sorell were invited to join them and are expected to fly some sort of exhibition.
Drones are a natural fit for kids who grow up playing video games — in fact, a 15-year-old pilot from Great Britain won the Dubai event. They also appeal to people like Haskins and Miller, who transferred their interest in radio control airplanes and helicopters to drones.
Duarte has sold drones to customers ranging from 7 years old to 63.
“There are no boundaries,” Duarte said.
Thrust-UAV, which recently was acquired by STEM-education company PCS Edventures, is about to release a new drone model (the Riot 250R Pro). The “ready to fly” package — everything you need to get started — will be in the $1,200 to $1,300 range.
The price is softened a bit by the fact that racing drones are resilient. Damage can be fixed relatively cheaply — sometimes for a couple bucks.
“They’re built to crash,” Duarte said. “It’s not like a typical toy where you crash it and it’s broken. We build these things to be able to take impacts.”
Still, you don’t want to learn with a brand-new drone.
The best way to get the feel for flying is through a computer simulator. Cadence spent about two weeks playing Liftoff (liftoff-game.com), using the computer screen as the goggles. Drone controllers plug into the computer via USB.
Flying requires mastering two joysticks that each control two inputs — throttle (speed) and yaw (left/right spin) on the left and pitch (forward/backward tilt) and roll (left/right tilt) on the right.
Cadence became interested in drones by watching her dad, who works for Thrust-UAV.
“(The simulator) helped me a lot,” Cadence said. “It feels exactly the same to me but I’m not breaking all of the parts. … I crashed a lot.”
Her first day flying for real, though, she only crashed once. “It just felt like I was flying the simulator,” she said.
Robert Grover, executive vice president of PCS Edventures, says drones are a terrific vehicle to teach students science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Boise-based PCS Edventures, a public company founded in 1988, installs engineering and robotics programs in schools worldwide.
Duarte built drones for the education program before PCS Edventures acquired Thrust-UAV.
“Drone racing is a perfect fit for STEM education,” Grover said. “I call it STEM education at 100 miles an hour because it really grabs kids’ attention.”
In races, the drones zip through gates (think hurdles that you go under) and around flags (like slalom skiing). Pilots watch the live video feed from their drone, as if they’re in the cockpit, to help them navigate the obstacles at speeds that can exceed 100 miles an hour. It’s like being in an amusement-park ride where you feel like you’re turning and spinning even though you’re sitting still.
Races usually last a few minutes because the battery life on racing drones isn’t long.
Duarte used to race trucks on dirt tracks and off-road. Miller used to own motorcycles.
“The adrenaline is insane,” Duarte said. “… When you get done, your body feels like you have run a marathon and you haven’t even gotten up.”
Added Miller, who flies a Hovership Zuul Racehound: “Your body runs through the same range of emotions as it would if you were flying or racing or going high speed through a forest. It’s totally exhilarating.”