The Game of Drones: Racing and Sports

dronesConf3sept2017People playing with models in the air is not new, but the scale of Drone Sports is like nothing the world has ever seen before, was the take-away message from the final session at the first FAI International Drones Conference in Lausanne on Saturday 2 September 2017.

“Aeromodelling culture has a long history going back 100 years,” explained Rich Hanson, president of the Academy of Model Aeronautics. “I was introduced to aeromodelling by a teacher, and it led me on to a 50-year career in aviation.”

Aviation back then was in a “romantic” era, he said, when looking up at a plane evoked a passion that has long since passed. “But the new technology is bringing with it a perfect storm of robotics and aeronautics,” he said. “That’s a perfect storm of science, technology and maths.”

Drones and drone sports is most exciting, “because of the young people involved,” he added. “Drone racing has brought in the next generation.”

Douglas Burnet from the Aerial Sports League agreed. “Our most successful pilot is 16-years old,” he said. “We have realised that we can use drones and create educational programmes for kids to learn engineering. We want kids to be taking our drones apart.”

The big driver behind the rapid rise of drone sports, which includes racing drones around a track and ‘drone wars’ with dedicated combat drones, is FPV – first-person view. That’s the headset you see drone pilots wearing when they race each other.

“FPV is really what took people by storm a few years ago,” Burnet explained. “The pilot flies as if they are in the cockpit of the drone. The goggles black out everything around, and create flow state. Time seems to slow down, reflexes are heightened, it creates a cascade of feel-good chemicals inside the brain, and this is what is driving the rapid adoption of FPV racing.”

Drone racing is growing he said, with the US consumer drone industry worth $1bn this year, and projected to rise to $4.5bn by 2024.

“Drone sports is going to drive that growth,” he said.

Several other drone racing and drone sports pilots echoed what Burnet said, with Anthony Cake, co-founder of ImmersionRC, saying the progress that drone sports had made in the last three years “has been absolutely mind blowing.”

He said he had first come across the concept of FPV in a book he read as a child in 1975. Now, it was reality. However, he wanted to break out of the indoor arenas and “soccer fields” and fly off into the wider world.

Flashing up a slide of glaciated mountains in Canada he said, “I want to race here. I want my first gate to be on top of that mountain, the next one down on the lake.”
He added: “This sport is still young enough to do innovative things. Lets do them.”

One person who is doing innovative things is Vincent Delcommene, who won the FAI Drone World Cup in 2016. Interviewed by conference host Regan Tetlow, Delcommene said, “I would like to fly the Formula 1 tracks. If you work in safety first and find a solution, then you will find a way.”

He added: “The first time I put on goggles it was so complicated I couldn’t fly. It took me five months to build my own flight controller.” Now, it is so accessible children do it. “In fact there is a boy in Spain who is nine-years old and he is beating everyone!”

Closing the final session at the FAI International Drones Conference, Grantley Reed from Freedom Sports in Australia introduced the new class of Freedom Drones.
“These are 1.1m across, it weighs 30kg and uses six batteries. Conservatively, it will do 200km/h and pull 8G.”

“It does 0-160km/h in less than four seconds. And it does 0-100km/h faster than the fastest Formula 1 car.”

The future for racing drones of this size included loops around race tracks, the Monaco Grand Prix track or even around Lake Geneva.

“The drones can carry multiple HD video cameras and be seen in the air flying. There are a whole lot of sponsorship opportunities.”

The team behind them had taken an aviation approach to developing them, he said, using aviation-grade materials and focusing on safety, teamwork and certification.

“We know we can end up with an amazing sport,” he said, “and that is what we are working to achieve.”

The FAI International Drones Conference and Expo is being held as part of EPFL Drone Days 2017, a three-day discovery showcase about the world of Drones and Drone technology. The venue, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, is a research institute and a proven centre for excellence in robotics research and innovation.

The expo continues on Sunday 3 September 2017.
Find out more at www.fai-dronesconference.org

Photographs: Marcus King / FAI