How drone racing strikes exciting balance between real, virtual worlds
Drone racing is like a cross between NASCAR and bowling leagues, one suburban enthusiast says.
It's like NASCAR because it's fast-paced and there's a professional circuit that's aired on ESPN since 2015.
Yet it's also like a bowling league because it's a niche activity that fosters a tight, team-like camaraderie among amateurs who join competitions across the Midwest.
Roberto Sandoval likes his hobby just as it is. He's made drone racing his living, too, working as a technician at FPV Racing Hobbies in Elmhurst.
"It's a lot of building relationships with people who are doing it for the first time, and I think that's really important," Sandoval said. "We're trying to make a space for people to have conversations about drones and drone racing."
Racing to start
Drone racing evolved about four years ago from other flight hobbies such as RC, or remote-controlled, flying. As drone technology advanced and cheapened, hobbyists began flying four-motor drones as small as 65 millimeters across and racing larger drones with 5-inch propeller diameters at high speeds.
Racing got a major suburban outlet when Brian West of Plainfield happened upon a drone racing video on YouTube in early 2015 and was enthralled. Three months later, Chicago Drone Racers -- a group with 1,700 members -- launched and began hosting 25 races a year. West said the group races inside during the winter at White Pines Golf Dome in Bensenville and outside during warmer months at fields sanctioned for RC airplanes.
West said drone racing has taken off partially because of a technology called FPV, or first-person view, which allows racers to put on a pair of goggles and watch a live video feed from their drone, as if they're onboard.
"If you're an old school RC flier like myself, you've always dreamed about being able to actually feel like you're flying an airplane," West said. "For younger kids, it's a perfect segue from a video game because you're getting that same point of view. It puts them in a physical reality versus an augmented reality."
Drone racing strikes the right balance between the real and virtual worlds for hobbyists, said Gregg Novosad of Palatine, who runs Go Drone X, a scholastic drone racing competition and technology entertainment company.
To see what he means, think about a crash.
When playing a video game, a crash means nothing. The virtual plane or car or boat or drone blows up? Just hit reset and begin anew.
But while racing in real life, a crash means a high risk of bodily harm. The car slams into the embankment or collides with another speedster? Ouch. Dangerous consequences. Novosad said drone racing offers the fun without the risk of injury or the prerequisite of athletic skill.
"It's the same adrenaline rush as real racing," he said. "I think it's more engaging."
Small and speedy
Racing in first-person view is what's engaging, drone enthusiasts say.
The typical race involves eight drones flying at once for a period of two minutes. During that time, West said racers try to complete as many laps as possible around a course, piloting their drone through 5-by-5-foot gates and around obstacles.
For pilots, it's a rush. For spectators, it can be a bit dull, Novosad said, because it's two minutes of action followed by four minutes of watching competitors pick up the pieces of broken drones.
Racers can get involved with the sport by buying a kit for between $150 and $400, Sandoval said. The typical kit includes the drone itself -- often called a "quad," which is short for quadcopter, meaning it has four motors and four propellers -- as well as a controller, batteries, a charger and a screen or a pair of goggles with which to see from the drone's point of view. Sometimes these additional parts can bring the cost of getting started up to roughly $1,000.
When newbies come to the FPV hobby shop at 593 N. York St., Sandoval said he encourages them to start with a $179 kit including a drone known as a "tiny whoop." At 65 millimeters from motor to motor, these baby drones can fly up to 15 mph.
"They're a really, really fun way to practice flying the drones that go really, really fast," Sandoval said.
Larger drones that measure 100 millimeters from motor to motor or 3, 4 or 5 inches across the propeller diameter can reach speeds of 50 to 80 mph, racers say.
Although there are some races featuring tiny whoops, many of the competitions taking place across the area, especially in the Chicago Drone Racers league, are with 5-inch quadcopters.
Racing them outdoors requires a field sanctioned by the Academy of Model Aeronautics to be in line with regulations of the Federal Aviation Administration. At each field, organizers set up gates and obstacles for drones to fly through or around -- typically rising only 30 or 40 feet in the air, West said.
Racing drones indoors takes a lot of space. That's why an entrepreneur who wants to create a tech hub at the Nokia campus in Naperville is considering creating a drone racing track, too.
Glenn Luckinbill of Aurora, who runs a tech firm called Swarm Robotix, says his plans are to set aside roughly 40,000 square feet, which could be used during the day by inventors as a testing ground for new drone parts, in the afternoon by school drone racing clubs, and in the evening by adult racers. If he's granted approval from Nokia for what he calls Hub 88, the space could open as soon as the fall.
Luckinbill said the hobby-level popularity of drones is opening up the technology to new business applications, too, giving drones a flight path toward increasing use.
"More and more of those racers are thinking about commercial applications for drones and starting their own companies," he said. "I think that trend will continue."