Imagine the buzzing of a very angry bee that’s swallowed a gulp of helium and you’ve got the high-pitched whine of a speeding quadcopter.
Racing these tiny drones – about the size of a dinner plate and weighing less than 10 ounces – has exploded in popularity in the past couple of years with competitions drawing hundreds of thousands of YouTube viewers and bringing big prize money to the winners.
In March, a British teenager won $250,000 at the World Drone Prix in Dubai out of a million-dollar prize purse.
In April, ESPN and the International Drone Racing Association (IDRA) announced a deal whereby the sports channel will show the 2016 U.S. National Drone Championship that will be held on Governor’s Island off Manhattan in August.
“It’s caught on like wildfire,” said Sean Stanford, an avid Albuquerque racer.
Stanford, 42, who runs a high performance auto shop, and Bernalillo County firefighter Shaun Taylor, 35, recently returned victorious from the National D1 Drone Racing Challenge near Melbourne, Australia.
Taylor, who races under the name “Nytfury,” took a $5,000 first prize and Stanford, aka “Stevie1DUR,” won $2,000 for placing third. Stanford, Shaun Taylor, Taylor’s wife Teng Ma Taylor and custom paint and body shop owner James Perez were sponsored by online hobby store HobbyKing, which sells quadcopter parts.
In May, Shaun Taylor won a race at the IDRA West qualifier in Tempe, Ariz., that secures him a spot to compete in the IDRA Drone Nationals in August.
“He’s like the Holly Holm of quadracing,” Stanford said.
Inside the game
Drone racing is a bit like being inside a video racing game. Pilots wear goggles linked to a real-time video feed from cameras mounted on the tiny craft, allowing them to navigate from a first-person perspective. Using thumbsticks on handheld controllers, they maneuver the quadcopters at speeds up to 100 mph as they zip, flip and turn through a series of hoops.
Races can be outdoors, as with the first U.S. National Drone Racing Championships in Sacramento, Calif., last year, or indoors, like the Australian race held in a warehouse. The Dubai event was held at night with illuminated hoops. A local park works fine, too.
Stanford, Taylor and other local drone pilots practice their race moves in local parks. Their quadcopters are registered with the Federal Aviation Administration, which has a list of safety requirements relating to flying height, proximity to people and so on. They are also members of the Academy of Model Aeronautics, which gives them liability insurance.
“Our number one priority every time we fly is safety,” said drone racer Levi Maston, 34, an Albuquerque medical student.
Currently, the city of Albuquerque has designated Balloon Fiesta Park and George Maloof Memorial Park for remote-controlled aircraft.
Competition among the drone pilots is intense.
“These guys have raced cars and motorcycles and they’re out here shaking before a race because you get really anxious. The worst is when your thumbs are shaking because that’s how you control the whole craft,” Maston said.
Drone racing can be intimidating for the beginner. Although hobby shops sell ready-made quadcopters for under $100, Stanford said they’re too slow to win races.
“You have to buy all the electrical parts and components and build it yourself. You have to learn how to solder and do some programming. They’re really involved,” he said.
Local enthusiasts have started a drone racing group called Southwest Podracers and pilots help each other with technical know-how.
“I think a lot of the guys get into it because they’re ‘hands-on’ guys anyway – guys that would be working on cars or stuff,” Maston said. “(Quadcopters) are sort of like adult LEGOs, except they fly.”
Although it is a male dominated sport, Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Zoe Stumbaugh has gained a reputation as a formidable racer and freestyle pilot.
Maston estimated the cost to build a quadcopter at about $400 and a set of Fat Shark FPV (first-person view) goggles run between $250 and $550. The drone-mounted camera, radio-connection, controller and Lithium Ion batteries that power the motor, camera, video transmitter and receiver can add several hundred dollars more. It’s also essential to have a bag of spares. Battery life while flying is typically less than five minutes, and crashes, which are common, will damage propellers.
But for Maston and the others, the experience is unparalleled.
“When you’re flying nothing matters,” he said, “You’re really in the moment.”