Gamers have a way of finding gaming in everything. Come drones, and what could you have but Drone Racing.
Australian underground leagues have worked on a blossoming trend of drone racing, more intimately known as the FPV (first person racing) among its players. “It’s addictive. It’s like playing a video game,” says drone racer Darren French. “It’s fast. The more you do it, the more you want to fly.” French has clocked over 60 kmph in drone racing.
Drone racing is rather unofficial, so it takes place in rundown warehouses, farms, and go-kart tracks in the suburbs. Participants include people from all walks of life, including 12 year old children, licensed drone operators, farmers, IT guys; whoever has the heart for drone racing.
Participants of the game build their own drones, perfecting them to their experiences and adorning them with onboard cameras, LED lights and drone mechanics. Racers obtain a “drone’s eye view” through their eye ensembles and get to fly around with their quadcopters. It is like playing a much real video game.
The races are well organized, providing the gamers with a 5 hour practice session on every new track. The race lasts an hour, where some players see their drones clash and crash, and others get to take home the glory associated with this Game of Drones. “You have complete freedom to move in any direction,” explained racer Mark Cocquio, “because you have to pick your lines just right and have to react in a split second when things go wrong, racing is even more exciting. One mistake and a tiny gap you’re aiming for becomes a tree or a wall and you’re out.”
“Anyone who’s not crashing as far as I’m concerned isn’t trying hard enough. That’s half the fun,” said racer Chad Nowak, who flies for a living, but prefers the rush of drone racing. “I fly full size aircrafts and I like being up there but there’s no way you would catch me in my glider flying between two trees, because if I get it wrong I’m going to end up in a coffin. But with something like this, I can go out there and do it, and if I get it wrong, the worst thing that happens is that I have to rebuild the frame. It gives you this freedom. That boyhood dream of just doing crazy things. You can do it now in a fun and safe way.”
The dream, however, doesn’t come cheap. Drones available on the market aren’t up to speed, quite literally, so racers resort to customized tinkering to give their drones a much needed thrust for an action packed race. Fanatics spend up to $2000 on a single drone to have the time of their life. “These days the start-up cost is roughly $1,000 to $2,000 all up,” Cocquio added. “But that includes one-off items like your radio, goggles and battery charger. The danger is that once you have one racer, it becomes much cheaper to buy more. Then suddenly you have a full stable of the things and have spent, who knows, how many thousand bucks.”
Hard core fans of the drone racing, some of the participants have gotten together to form QAROP (Quadcopter Aerial Race, Organisation & Promotion). QAROP has successfully introduced Australia’s first legal drone racing league and organized races across the country. QAROP director Chris Ballard attributes the stunted progress to “outdated aviation laws,” but remains certain that drone racing will pick up in Australia.
Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority, CASA, forbids drones from flying above 400 ft, above crowded areas and within 30 meters of people at night; these, however, do not make sense for FPV drones. With these regulations, the race loses much its adrenaline packed punch. “One thing that’s holding us back at this stage is technology,” says Ballard. “The technology allows for eight people to be in the air at the one time racing against each other, however the Australian laws limit frequencies we can use only really allowing four people to be in the air at once.”
Yet CASA officials remain unwavering and concerned for the safety issues pertaining to drone racing. Ballard agrees, but aims to work with the laws at hand instead of letting it stump the drone racing scene in the country. “It would be nice to do what we like, but we understand there are safety issues involved particularly with people who don’t understand the given situation. We stick to them, we advise our members to stick to them and we work our way around it,” he says.