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Dublin: 23 °C Monday 25 June, 2018
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How racing with drones is like being a 'very fast bird'

It’s in its infancy, but with the national championships happening this weekend, those involved hope it will become something bigger.

A competitor racing a drone at last year's Irish Drone Nationals.
A competitor racing a drone at last year's Irish Drone Nationals.

IF YOU’RE NOT FAMILIAR with first-person drone racing, it’s understandable. While the topic of drones has been around for a while, competitive drone racing is something that is only beginning to form.

The hobby is very young but those involved in FPV (First Person View) drone racing hope it will grow and capture the imagination just like any other major event.

For those enthusiasts in Ireland, the National Drones Racing Championship, which is taking place in Mondello Park in Naas this weekend, pits the best against each other.

In its second year, it will see 40 quadcopter pilots competing against each other with the top six representing Ireland in both the European cup in Ibiza and the world championships in Hawaii.

None of this existed more than a year ago and according to the chairman of Leinster FPV, Jaak Pieterse, the aim is to continue growing the community and get it recognised as a sport in the country.

“[Last year] was our first event organised here and then we only had a small amount of pilots, he said. “Racing is still in its infancy in Ireland so we wanted to get a bigger group and get it recognised as a sport”.

Source: Jacek Tuminski/YouTube

While this weekend’s event builds upon the work from last year, a major difference is the track is outdoors instead of indoors. More open space offers a number of opportunities but presents its own challenges too.

“The main thing is when you have open space, you have more speed,” explained Pieterse. “We can make the course more technical as well and allow more room for error. We can allow more novice pilots to join and at the same time, we can make it technical for more experienced racers, but the challenge is to ensure safety for the public”.

That’s what is tricky for outdoor tracks. When you’re indoors, nothing can really go wrong in that case as there’s full netting around, but outdoors we have to account for all cases. We have to put safety procedures in place and we’ve done that.

These drones are small – they cannot be heavier than 1kg – but they can reach speeds of up to 120kmh, meaning safety measures are vital. Not only do those safety measures involve setting up nets and barriers, it also involves adjusting the track layout.

The track follows the guidelines of the European Motorsports Association so it needs to meet certain requirements.

Things like the distance between a gate and a hairpin (a sharp U-shaped bend in a track) and corner placement are important  -  Pieterse describes it as like ”a car racetrack but in a 3D environment” - especially since eight drones race at the same time. If these measures weren’t in place, it would gain attention for all the wrong reasons.

“What we do compared to other events is safety,” says Pieterse. ”Safety comes first always. From our point of view, we want all of our events to be child-friendly. You can bring your children and dogs, you can do that as you’re in a safe, controlled environment.”

It’s very important as people think it’s dangerous. It’s only dangerous when it’s uncontrolled and we put it in a controlled situation.

12356788_491493777696193_5537022167869175313_o-1024x575 As drone footage is streamed, crowds can see what the pilots are looking at. Source: Leinster FPV

Like being ‘a very fast bird’

And then there’s the matter of racing itself. As all drones have a camera attached, the pilots wear goggles so they have a first-person viewpoint from the drone. It does give it a feel similar to a racing videogame, especially considering the speeds they can travel at.

“The closest it comes to is the flight simulators that you used to play on your PC,” explains Pieterse. “The only thing is because you have goggles on your head… you [only] see is what the quadcopter sees so you are the quadcopter”.

[It's like] you are a bird, but a very fast bird.

Source: Irish Drone Nationals/YouTube

On top of knowing how to fly one, how you build your drone can make all the difference.

What parts you choose, how you programme your software and things like soldering, electronics, radio frequencies and other factors become essential skills. Small improvements to the technical side can make all the difference

“What we do with the software is to make sure it’s a perfectly-tuned machine,” says Pieterse ”It’s about tuning the electronic components so they talk well to each other and the better they talk to each other, the more power and efficiency you get out of it”.

And how do you become good at racing? Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts as Pieterse says you only improve the more you practice.

The more you fly, the better you get. There is no other way of saying it.

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About the author:

Quinton O'Reilly

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