Pro drone racers Rotor Riot dish about collision-avoidance technology, livestreaming video and their passion for flying robots.
Just as players’ fascination with PC games unleashed a mega-million-dollar eSport career path for many, the thrill of flying drones is turning once light-hearted hobbyists into professional pilots who make money at international racing and freestyle competitions.
For some fans, an obsession with flying robots has translated into a drone pilot lifestyle, driven by a need for speed and aerial acrobatics. Fun-loving daredevils like Steele Davis, Chad Nowak and Tommy Tibajia, who along with Carlos Puetrolas Charpu make up the drone team Rotor Riot, epitomize this phenomenon.
Like a growing number of people around the world, Rotor Riot’s passion for drone technology has helped hone their skills.
“I try not to take competition or life too seriously,” Davis said as his team prepared to compete against 100 racing teams in the qualifying rounds at the World Organization of Racing Drones Prix in Dubai 2016.
“I like watching funny videos and goofing off with my friends. If you take things too seriously, what’s the point?”
Rotor Riot also celebrates the drone lifestyle on their YouTube video series, where, occasionally, they join other flocks of drone enthusiasts to share new tricks, talents and technology hacks.
After Davis and Nowak finished 2nd and 4th in the Freestyle competition at World Drone Prix, they – along with teammate Tibajia – shared their thoughts about drone technologies, including depth perception for obstacle avoidance and live video streaming. They also talked about the joys of building and refining their own flying robots.
When Drones Can See: Collision Avoidance Technology
Davis believes collision avoidance technologies, such as Intel RealSense depth cameras, will take the world of consumer drones by storm. However, the need for speed could keep that technology from professional drone racing.
“The collision-avoidance program would make the aircraft assume it was about to be in a collision the entire time it was flying,” he joked. Part of racing is pushing drones as fast as they can go while maneuvering around tracks that are more like obstacle courses.
Tibajia imagines a time when drones are big enough to fit a pilot onboard. In this case, it would make sense for collision-avoidance technology to minimize drone damage without impacting the vehicle’s speed or agility.
To Tibajia’s point, the Volocopter VC200 made aircraft history on March 30, 2016 as the first certified multicopter to fly with a person onboard.
Designed by German company e-volo, this electric aircraft gives people a glimpse into a future where, one day, ubers and taxis could travel above street traffic. The e-volo’s flight control system uses obstacle-avoidance technology from Intel’s Ascending Technologies, allowing the craft to hover and maneuver safely, and land gently on its own.
Nowak said collision-avoidance technology could even pull drone racing into the realm of autonomous flight, much like the choreographed 100 drones night sky light show.
“Collision-avoidance tech could help give the pilot more info to allow them to race the craft faster and in more extreme locations,” said Nowak. That visual information could augment what pilots already see using goggles.
But a pilot’s handy skills and creativity are what make drone racing exciting to Nowak. More than tech, he said drone racing is about the human factor.
Challenges of Livestreaming Video
The main challenge for sending live video from drones is accessing strong, reliable wireless bandwidth, said Davis. Today, drone racers use analog video because it’s more forgiving than digital video transitions.
“Until digital data links can get fast enough and robust enough to cope with the pilot’s needs, it will remain analog video,” Davis said.
Earlier this year, ATT and Intel demonstrated how drones could soon livestream video over 4G wireless networks.
If tech companies building next-generation 5G wireless networks want to make digital video streaming a reality for drone racers, Nowak said streamed video will need to be high resolution and transmit with very low latency. It requires a strong, clear wireless data signal.
A bad digital video signal can be a showstopper for a drone pilot, said Nowak. It’s like having someone wave their hands in front of a pilot’s face during a race.
“Analogue signals breakup gently by showing static, but you can still race,” Nowak said. “With digital, where everyone wants to go, video quality is either perfect or completely black. That’s hard to deal with.”
Video for piloting is one thing, but feeding live video for entertainment is another. If they could stream digital video reliably from a drone directly to the internet or a phone, Rotor Riot pilots would spend more time watching something like “Live Drones All Day, All Night” streamed on Twitch or YouTube.
“I was one of the first to strap my phone to the front of a quad and attack a concrete indoor racetrack while streaming live to over 1000 people,” he said.
When livestreaming digital video from drones is reliable and in high quality, it could bring amazing real-time race coverage, said Nowak.
“Viewers could see what I can see through my googles in real time during a race or when I go to an epic location.”
Drone Building and Modding
“I really enjoy building aircraft,” he said. “There is something soothing about putting on some good music and getting sucked into a three to six-plus hours building session.”
Exploring new designs can inspire new tricks and techniques, and vice versa. On the other hand, Davis warns that Murphy’s Law lurks within the building process.
“You can complete a new build then find out you have to tear it apart to change one tiny thing that makes the difference between an expensive, useless paper weight and a 70-plus mph, 8-1 power to weight ratio beast of a drone,” said Davis.
One of the greatest feelings comes from the maiden flight of a drone built with your own hands, said Tibajia, but he agrees that getting there isn’t always easy.
“You can come up with a better, cleaner way of mounting or wiring but forget one little part that forces you undo the 10 amazing things you just did…that’s frustrating,” said Tibajia.
Nowak, who also considers himself a tinkerer, said it’s rewarding to take an already well-thought-out idea and make it better.
“But the amount of time spent in the workshop can get frustrating when what I really want to do fly,” said Nowak.
New Drone Tech Wish List
While Davis points out that battery life, not computer processing performance, is the bottleneck, Tibajia sees increased processing power someday allowing gyroscopes, motors and the flight controller to talk in real time rather than react to moments after the fact.
“We are talking about the ultimate in-flight stabilization,” said Tibajia. “Match this with other sensors such as an accelerometer, and now you can control flight based on the desired state of 90 mph at an altitude of 3 meters.”
Davis wants to see innovation in razzle-dazzle lighting.
“I want my quad to look like a deep sea bioluminescent jelly fish tearing through the sky with great efficiency,” he said.
“A super simplistic LED skin or some sort of light weight, lower power lighting system would be fantastic.”
The Future of Drone Competitions
Cool new technologies will change the future of drone racing and lead to new drone team sports like soccer, where people can be replaced by drones.
Nowak even imagined what it’d be like to see a large scale drone racing league, where eight drones one-third the size of a car race for 20 minutes, taking occasional pit stops to swap batteries.
“The crashes would also be spectacular,” said Nowak, excited about the endless possibilities.
“New tech is opening new capabilities.”