Ready to race
Quadcopter enthusiasts prepare for upcoming GJ competition
The race is about to begin. David Mason is ready at the starting line, and the small crowd gathered to watch goes quiet out of respect for the competitors.
Mason breathes in deeply and exhales sharply, an effort to keep control of his mind and nerves. He waits for the signal. Intensity hangs thick in the air as the wind moves through the trees.
In another instant, the race begins, and Mason is off the starting line ... but it isn’t Mason, exactly.
It’s his drone, zipping through the air at upward of 60 miles per hour, sometimes reaching 80 or 90 even, as he zoomed through the racecourse, shooting through homemade gates made of PVC pipe and foam noodles and bulleting around corners, his motor buzzing with frenetic power.
“It’s an adrenaline rush, just like any race,” Mason said before the race, which was performed on a course set up by Mason and his fellow racers on a recent weekend at Wingate Park in the Redlands. “I get done with a race, and I’m shaking — I have to remind myself to breathe.”
During the race, Mason sat just outside a shade tent set up near the racecourse with a pair of goggles over his eyes and a large, complex remote control in his hands, piloting his “quad,” what he and other enthusiasts call their small, four-rotor racing machines.
It’s short for quadcopter, a name that enthusiasts say more accurately describes the aircraft than the term “drones.”
“They’re basically flying computers that receive manual input from us,” Mason said.
Through his goggles, Mason can watch real-time video from a camera installed on his quad, using the video to steer the craft as if he is sitting in its cockpit rather than alongside the racecourse.
This video-to-quad system is called first-person video, or FPV. It is so realistic, pilots could lose their lunch if their quad stalls and falls out of the sky, and pilots with video goggles on often list from side to side as they steer, a tendency known in the racing community as “goggle-head,” Mason said.
Mason heads Gatekeepers, which is a local chapter of the MultiGP Drone Racing League, an international organization with more than 500 chapters around the globe and 12,000 registered quad pilots.
FPV racing is a rapidly growing phenomenon. ESPN has started airing drone races on television, and winners of race championships, such as Front Range resident Jordan “Jet” Temkin, the 26-year-old two-time world champion of the Drone Racing League, now make enough money off their winnings and sponsorships to go pro.
“He’s basically a full-time drone racer,” said Matt Roper, one of Temkin’s friends and president of the Boulder-based, 220-member MultiGP chapter The Other Guys FPV Racing.
Roper and some of his Front Range chapter members are coordinating with the Grand Junction Modeleers to organize a first-time quadcopter racing event in Grand Junction over Labor Day weekend at the Modeleers’s airfield on Orchard Mesa.
Called Drones in the Desert, the competition will take place over two days, and Roper would like to have 30 or 35 pilots registered and racing eight to a heat in several rounds across both days.
Racing events such as Drones in the Desert act as important ambassadors for the budding sport, Roper said.
“Right now, it’s like early skateboarding, where it’s almost like a crime,” Roper said. “There’s a lot of drone fear.”
That’s why most pilots prefer the term quadcopters, Roper said. They don’t want their sport attached to the stigma of drones: nosey high-flying spy-crafts operating hundreds of yards, or even thousands of miles, away from their pilots.
Racing drones, in contrast, stay close to home, Roper and Mason said.
By rule, a goggled pilot must have a spotter next to him or her to keep visual contact with the quad throughout the flight, Mason said.
He added that the video feed between the quad and the pilot doesn’t transmit over much distance, and the lithium ion batteries operating the quads only last about four minutes because of the huge amount of power the quads consume.
Further, quads fly low, whizzing through arched gates and around tree trunks and posts, following close to a race path demarcated on the ground, Roper said.
Safety was a priority at the recent race at Wingate Park. Mason and the other racers cordoned off the race area and kept a close watch on potential hazards. At one point, a bystander was asked to move her car a few yards forward, because they felt it was too close to a corner of the course. And it was a good thing, because in such a high-octane, obstacle-laden sport, crashes are fairly common.
On this day, Mason and his opponent both crashed their quads into the grass before finishing their race. It was a dramatic, fearsome event replete with yips of frustration and “ooohhhs” from the audience.
Serious quadcopter racers typically build their crafts out of parts bought on the internet, soldering the crafts and programming them to respond to remote controls, choosing parts for a good mix of speed and stability.
If a quad breaks during a race, it means an investment of time and money back at home, and worse, no more racing for the day, Mason said.
That’s why a lot of newbie drone racers start with durable, all-parts-included drones, said Chris Neilsen, owner of Grand Junction’s Hobby Hut Models store. Neilsen sells a hearty racing drone that comes with a camera, goggles and a remote control for $350.
He noticed a spike in racing drone sales at his shop about a year ago, but sales have fallen off a bit more recently probably because pilots “graduate” once they become more experienced to self-fabrication from specialized parts bought online, he said.
It may sound intimidating to the average Joe to build and program a quadcopter from scratch, but the sport isn’t niche to computer programmers and engineers.
“We’ve got a plumber, we’ve got a teacher, we’ve got electricians and we’ve got a dentist,” said Spencer Garner, one of the local Gatekeepers chapter’s 18 members.
Garner, who used to fly remote control airplanes and helicopters, said he got into racing quads for “the thrill of it.” He is excited for Drones in the Desert, because it will bring professionalism and some tough competition to the Grand Valley.
“We’ve been practicing every weekend,” said Garner, adding that one racer who qualified for the Drone Racing League’s regional competition, which took place on Aug. 19 on the Front Range, will be at the Grand Valley event.
Garner doesn’t usually fly at the Grand Junction Modeleers’s airfield, where the event will take place, because he’s not a member of the club.
Many Modeleers members fly model airplanes, said Lee Simcox, the club’s president. Two long, wide, paved runways, which aren’t necessary for quadcopters, are the pride of the airfield.
Simcox isn’t too hot on drones, although he does fly a quadcopter for fun sometimes. He thinks there are a lot of fly-by-night pilots out there who don’t register with the FAA or the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), which requires insurance and adheres to a strict safety code.
“There are a lot of cowboys out there who just kind of wing it,” Simcox said.
Yet, he is excited about the upcoming event and the new blood it could draw to the Modeleers. Since the event will take place at the Modeleers’s airfield, all the pilots will be required to have AMA certification, Simcox said.
And if the event goes well, with a good turn-out, solid organization and safe racing, Simcox said they’ll probably try to have more drone competitions like it in the future.
“We have a lot of retired old-timer people in our club, and I’m sure they’re not very happy about it,” Simcox said. “But you can’t please everybody.”
A SPORT FOR EVERYONE
There is a perception that drone racing is dominated by 20- or 30-something men, but that’s not true. Or at least half of it isn’t.
The huge majority of racers are men, said Matt Roper. He doesn’t know of any women or girls in his Boulder-based MultiGP chapter, but he would like to diversify the ranks.
“We’d love to see it,” Roper said of getting ladies into the sport. “It’s a very inclusive community.”
In fact, Roper said the community is really what drives his passion for drone racing. Racers help each other build, fix and hone their aircraft, and he sees lots of kids joining the racing ranks who might not enjoy athletic sports but who like the robotics and the competition.
“The kids are just extremely good at it,” Roper said, citing their “fast brains.”
DRONES IN THE DESERT
The Grand Junction Modeleers in partnership with The Other Guys FPV Racing present Drones in the Desert, a quadcopter competition set for Sept. 2–3 at the Modeleers airfield, 3320 Whitewater Hill.
Participants will race a course for cash prizes: $300 for first place, $200 for second and $100 for third.
Academy of Model Aeronautics registration is mandatory for all racers.
Spectators are welcome to attend and admission is free.
Information and racer registration can be found at gjmodeleers.com.