Drone racers are evolving the sport using bigger, more powerful drones that could have implications for the future of commercial drone use.
Drone racing is becoming a mainstream sport, but many racers are making it bigger and better. Racing small, bee-like buzzing drones around obstacle courses is exhilarating, but a growing number of pilots are turning to larger, more powerful drones, aiming to expand the sport beyond aerial go-cart races to become more like an adrenaline arousing NASCAR experience.
Daredevil pilots like Zoe Stumbaugh, aka ZoeFPV, and Kevin Sellers, aka SlashedFPV, are going crazy for X Class drones, which span roughly three feet (one meter) from motor to motor. In many cases, these giant drones are twice the size of those used at popular competitions like the Drone Grand Prix. They can have all the agility and speed of their smaller mini-quad counterparts, but they pose bigger challenges for builders and pilots. They can also create more spectacular crashes compared with smaller drones, which is painful for pilots but unforgettable for spectators.
“I’m driven by the X Class because of the sheer awesome scale of it,” said Stumbaugh, a well-known drone racer who recently appeared in Intel’s FlightLab video series on small drones. “We’re working with machines that are not just little toys, but something that has serious power behind them that can bring serious consequences.”
Stumbaugh said the rush of racing big drones is similar to the thrill she used to get riding her motorcycle. Excitement also comes from building drones and sharing her piloting skills with others.
Larger drones are easier to see and cause bigger crashes than their mini-quad cousins. Those are just a few reasons why giant drone racing is poised to become a popular spectator sport, according to Sellers, a founding member of Team Vondrone.
“I see it being part of something like X Games, or a destination sport on its own,” said Sellers.
The first known X Class drone race took place on February 4 at the AMA home field of the Livermore Flying Electrons in California. Team Vondrone, considered the first organized X Class team, faced off against four competitors. [Disclosure: writer Eddie Codel is a supporting member of Team Vondrone.]
Each pilot built their own uniquely designed, large-scale multirotor drone. With no standard frame layout, number of motors or prescribed size or weight of components, X Class drone racing remains an experiment, but with great potential.
Stumbaugh became interested in racing bigger drones because mini-quads — the smaller racing drones — are reaching their performance limits. She said X Class drones have lots of room to grow.
“I’ve already kind of hung up mini-quad racing,” she said. “I still fly and love mini-quads, but my focus right now is purely on the 1000 class (bigger drones). There are more technical feats and more advances in the technology that I can help push.”
Stumbaugh said pilots haven’t come close to reaching the potential for these big machines. Maneuverability skills are critical, but she’s eager to push her big drone to higher and higher speeds, more than double the 60 miles per hour (mph) racing speeds of mini-quad.
“I think we’ll hit 100 miles an hour within the next two months,” predicted Stumbaugh. ”We’ll probably hit 150 by the end of the year with a little luck.”
It will take new technologies and designs to get there.
“Most of the gear that we’re using was created for aerial video platforms,” said Sellers. “They have the lifting power, but they’re not built for speed or the responsiveness that we need when we’re racing.”
While X Class drones can rely upon flight controllers, cameras and a few other technologies used by mini-quad racers, Stumbaugh said larger racing drones require lots of innovation to improve performance. There is need for new electronic speed controllers (ESCs), new motors and better propellers. She sees manufacturers starting to catch on to these needs.
“They’re not just thinking about the efficiency of how long they can float,” she said. “They want to start building machines that can go faster and compete.”
It’s still early days for big drone racing, but technology innovations that spring from the sport could benefit the commercial drone industry, according to Anil Nanduri, vice president in the New Technologies Group and general manager of the UAV segment at Intel. His team recently released the Intel Falcon 8+, a commercial-grade drone designed with sensing and autopilot technologies to help it capture aerial precision data (see Industrial Drones Put Digital Eye on Airbus Assembly Line).
“While commercial drone requirements vary depending on their specific needs, the use of new materials or new rotor and prop designs, FPV radio communications, latency reductions and other innovations that might come from drone racing could be applied to the commercial drone industry,” said Nanduri.
Just how e-sports competitions like Intel Extreme Masters have over the years, Nanduri said drone racing in its various forms will attract sponsors eager to participate in new sports and entertainment events.
“There are many small players catering to the drone racing platform needs and you will continue to see them grow in numbers,” he said.
Stumbaugh believes getting manufacturers and sponsors onboard will give big drone racing a shot in the arm and help the sport catch on faster.
“We need teams that have sponsorships so they can get parts they need for these machines,” she said. “It’s no longer a mini-quad where you can build it for a few hundred dollars. This is something that costs upwards of $700 to $1,000 to put together a proper machine. So, we need sponsors behind that. Especially when these machines crash because that’s expensive.”
Stumbaugh and Sellers are preparing their giant drone rigs for the next X Class exhibition on April 29 at Flite Fest West in Vallejo, Calif. It just might be an historic race between an evolved fleet of X Class racers that break the 100 mph threshold.
Ken Kaplan contributed to this story.