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How to crash a drone at 150kmh

JASON DORDAY/Stuff.co.nz

Don’t look now: quadcopter pilots at a Matamata raceday use video goggles to monitor the view from their racing drone’s onboard camera.


A quadcopter completes a high-speed power-loop at the Matamata drone-racing course.


Tim “Timmy G” Gordon, with his Spektrum DX9 radio controller.


Anna Hoskin, 29, RotorCross League photographer. She and her quadcopter-pilot partner Scott Taylor like to race miniature drones around the house.


Stephan Knapp, aka “Steve FPV”, Auckland engineering student.


Chris “Dronewolf” MacDonald, fulltime FPV pilot, with one of his many craft.


Ready for takeoff: the quadcopters at the start line before the pilots return to their chairs and video goggles.


Quadcopter pilot Gryffin Cook, 15, tests the video feed from his quadcopter during a break between races.


Is it bird, is it a roman sandal with propellers? No it’s a high-speed racing quadcopter.

Close up, it looks rather like a roman sandal to which someone has soldered the insides of a toaster and glued a fistful of plastic propellers from a toy plane.

From a distance? Well, it still looks like a roman sandal really, just a roman sandal that’s flying precise loops and dives almost too fast to follow while whining like a giant, angry hornet, and the propellers are spinning so fast they’ve become blurry discs of colour.

And on a day like this, at the New Zealand MiniQuad Champs in Matamata, Waikato, the flying sandal will be performing its mad loops and fighter-jet dives alongside five or so similar craft, as they hurtle around a field full of flags and hoops under the remote control of the “pilots” seated in camping chairs off to one side, twiddling the sticks on their radio remote controls.

These speeding marvels are quadcopters, a subcategory of the flying drones taking over the world. They can’t carry pizzas like this multicopter – too small. They can’t slaughter enemies of the US from the sky like a Predator drone, for similar reasons. They’re not even that great for spying on your neighbours – their battery life is very short and there’s little of the built-in stabilisation and GPS tech of a specialist aerial photography drone.

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What they can do, though, is go fast. Really, really fast.

Small and light and with batteries that can spit out all their energy in just a few minutes, these cute little hand-soldered and -assembled devices hurtle about at up to 150km/h. And that’s the attraction for many of the 16 pilots who came to Matamata for the raceday organised by the grandly named RotorCross NZ Drone Racing League.

Organiser Mat Wellington, 44, says some racers moved over from model aeroplanes. Others just like fiddling with technology. But perhaps a third are former video gamers who found they could get the same adrenalin buzz in the real world.

Auckland engineering student Stephan Knapp, 21 got hooked on watching multicopters and drones on YouTube, then realised they were getting cheap enough that he could buy his own.

What makes it so great, says Knapp, is that this is “FPV” racing: first-person view. Rather than watching his or her craft from the ground, an FPV pilot straps on a headset and relies entirely on the video transmission from a camera on the quad.

“It feels like you’re actually sitting inside the quadcopter. Flying through really tiny spaces in a thing that can go at 150km/h with heaps of power makes it feel like you’re flying a fighter jet almost. Every time I do a race I have a bit of an adrenalin rush.”

Chris McDonald – aka Macca, flying name “Dronewolf” – has driven seven hours from Kaeo in the Far North. He’s 37 and is, he says, “a fulltime FPV pilot”.

Well, sort of. Rather, he funds his racing obsession with commercial aerial photography and some part-time satellite-TV installation, and has persuaded a manufacturer to sponsor him by giving him their latest FPV-racing kit.

“I’ve owned over 43 drones.”

The League used to have one woman pilot, and in the US one of the best freestyle drone flyers is a woman, but today’s pilots, ranging from 15 to middle age, are all male. There are a few women spectators though.

Jo Burson, a retail manager from Kerikeri, is here to support her mate Macca.

“I enjoy seeing the smile on his face when he wins, because he puts his heart and soul into this.”

She likes the speed, the loops, and the crashes (most pilots bring spare parts and a soldering iron).

“They’re like little mosquitos. They’re cute.”

Wellington financial analyst Fran Roulston, 33, is here with her racer husband Grieg. Last year they went to the world champs at Kualoa Ranch in Hawaii, the same place where Jurassic Park was filmed.

That was great fun, says Roulston, though something of a shambles. ESPN came to film the event, thus giving it legitimacy as a real sport, but the ESPN video equipment interfered with the radio signals for the FPV goggles, screwing up a number of the races.

Roulston enjoys being a “drone wife” – “It’s something we can do together out of the house. It’s a very friendly community. I’ve met some cool people” – but has no interest in taking the controls.

“I don’t like it if he flies it too close to me. I don’t like it when it hits the car at home – that’s happened twice. Or my lemon tress. It’s part of the learning, but it’s frustrating how easily things break, and how costly they can be.”

Drone racing is a brand new sport, says Wellington, only made possible by the sudden collapse in the price of the onboard microcomputers that translate a pilot’s stick-waggling into precisely-judged alterations of the relative speed of the four propellers, to steer and accelerate the craft.

Five years ago that computer would have cost about $3000; now it costs about $30. This means you can now get the full kit you need – carbon-fibre frame, motors, batteries, onboard electronics, video-reception equipment and goggles – for not much more than $1000, though real enthusiasts usually end up shelling out much more because there’s always something new and better hitting the market.

Plus you’ll probably want to have a spare drone or two for race day. After all, when you hit the ground at 150km/h after a failed power-roll on the last lap of your race, sometimes there’s only so much you can do with a soldering iron in the middle of a field in Matamata.

* See rotorcross.co.nz for more info about quadcopter racing.

– Stuff


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