Customized Drones Give Pilots an “Out of Body” Racing Experience

Engineering chops merge with first-person-view flying in the exhilarating mixed reality sport of drone racing

Ask Tyler “RaceDayQuads” Brennan what first-person-view drone racing feels like, and his eyes light up.

“This is like the first week of having a brand new video game—except it lasts forever,” says the 22-year-old drone pilot from Colorado. He says he’s hooked, addicted. And he’s not the only one.

“There’s nothing else like it,” says Ken “Flying Bear” Loo, another avid drone racer. “It’s really immersive and a great experience.”

At the 2016 U.S. National Drone Racing Championships on Governor’s Island in New York City early this month, drone pilots gathered to test their racing chops. Drone racing is one of the first mixed-reality sports, combining virtual and physical worlds. A camera in the nose of the drone streams a live video feed to a set of virtual reality goggles. This first-person-view (FPV) experience gives pilots the sensation that they’re right in the cockpit of an aircraft, dodging through trees and soaring over buildings.

Brennan, like the other pilots gathered on the field, had competed at one of several qualifying events held all over the country, earning the right to race in in the finals. For him, the event represented a last hurrah before heading off to fly actual planes for the U.S. Air Force. But organizers hope that a heightened level of competition—combined with ESPN’s coverage of the event—are signs that the budding two-year-old sport could go mainstream.

While some pilots are drawn in by the adrenaline rush, they often stick around for the engineering. Many start off purchasing a pre-built drone. But as those crash and break, pilots get out their soldering kits, make their own repairs, and start customizing, meaning that the sport is as much about “making” as it is about racing.

In designing their drones, pilots adhere to a fairly minimal set of requirements set by the Drone Sports Association (DSA). According to DSA chief executive Shahand Barati, that’s by design. DSA’s strategy is meant to spur innovation in a sport where the technology is constantly evolving. Pilots design their own frames and then cut them out of carbon fiber; they hand pick all of their components—including flight controllers and motors—and then test everything themselves until they hit upon a version that fits their unique flying style.

Take “Zoe FPV” Stumbaugh for example. She got her first taste of the thrill of drone racing when medical complications got in the way of her original passion, riding motorcycles. The rush of flying like a bird, without having to leave her seat, was the perfect substitute.

But her love of flying quickly developed into a passion for tinkering.

“When I got into the hobby I didn’t know how to solder anything together,” she said. “Now I’m soldering all my own equipment, I’m programming all my own equipment. I’m working with manufacturers to develop new product for the market—stuff that doesn’t exist yet.”

For “Flying Bear” Loo, this freedom to hack and tinker is a major draw. He says designing and optimizing drones is a perfect complement to his day job designing consumer gadgets. It has given him the opportunity to try out new skills such as programming firmware and software—skills that then augment his professional work.

“I burn up all my vacation time, and my team members think I’m crazy,” Loo says. “But it’s something I love to do, so I’m just going to keep doing it and having fun.”

Credits: Special thanks to SFPV and Flying Bear for use of their footage; Music: Night Rave by Audionautix