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Drag Racing With a DIY Drone Engineer

Zoe Stumbaugh’s drone workbench is four feet from her bed. She’s spent the better part of a month, together with her engineering partner, hunched over her workbench trying to build the fastest drone in the world.

“In theory this machine goes up to 170 MPH. We built it to spec to beat the current world record of 163 MPH, which is pretty insane for a drone right now,” Zoe said.

In the span of only a few years, drone racing has gone from a tight-knit group of hobbyists to races airing on ESPN. And in an industry that’s largely made up of and marketed to young men, Zoe ranks among the top pilots and drone engineers in the world.

There’s big money beginning to pour into the industry too. In June of this year, British broadcaster Sky and others invested $20 million into Drone Racing League, one of the several drone racing organizations that have popped up around the world over the last few years.

But before she picked up her first drone, Zoe rode and fixed motorcycles with a local Santa Cruz motorcycle co-op. When medical complications left her unable to ride, she turned to flying drones as a means of reintegrating into the world after being bedridden for months.

“I got into [drone] racing because I couldn’t get out of bed,” Zoe said.

When I met with Zoe recently at her home in Santa Cruz, California, she was 3D-printing and soldering the final touches of her custom-built hexacopter to compete in an upcoming, closed-to-the-public drone drag race in San Francisco, hosted by Bay Area-based drone racing organization Aerial Sports League, an early mover in the so-called sport.

“This is an interesting event because we’ve never had drag racing starts where you’re going full-throttle off the line. So your launch is a big deal in this race,” Zoe said.

In this episode of Transmissions, Motherboard follows Zoe as she competes and flies with her new, would-be record-breaking drone for the first time.

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