What Is Drone Racing?

Mike Welch
12.8.2016 »
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Everyone has seen video and photographs taken from drones, whether you realize it or not. Today, you can’t watch a commercial without some spectacular footage shot from a flying drone (I prefer to call them radio controlled quadcopters rather than drones). You may not know this, but radio controlled airplanes have been around for more than 70 years.

Arial photograph taken via drone

Intrigued by things that fly
Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been intrigued by things that fly. One of my favorite toys was a control-line airplane powered by a Cox .049 engine. Over the years, I’ve flown radio-controlled (RC) airplanes and gliders, but got away from it.

About 2 years ago, I discovered micro-quadcopters. These are tiny drones and you can buy them for as little as $50 on Amazon. They come with a small transmitter with two control sticks. Just like their big brothers, they have a small computer on board that stabilizes their flight. But most importantly, they are small enough to fly in your living room. To me, this was magic.

Sanger & Eby's Mike Welch's  micro-quadcopter drone

Soon I discovered that people were building quadcopters of their own. I’m always looking for a new challenge, so I thought, “why not?” I started researching and ordering parts to build my first quadcopter.

What started for me as a nice simple interest in a flying toy has progressed to a full-fledged addiction, once I discovered the sport of drone racing.

Sanger & Eby's Mike Welch's racing quadcopter drone

What is drone racing?
Drone Racing is a craze that combines a camera-equipped, radio controlled quadcopter with First Person View (FPV) goggles. The pilot directs the quadcopter through a race course while wearing a set of virtual reality goggles. The race track is like a 3D obstacle course is made up of a series of gates or tunnels that the pilot must maneuver his quadcopter through. Each race has up to 8 pilots flying at the same time.

FPV googles used to fly drones

When you wear the FPV goggles, your brain convinces you that you are part of the quadcopter and actually flying. As the quadcopter does a roll or a big dive, your brain interprets what your eyes are seeing and makes your stomach turn. Take a high speed pass by a tree and you actually move your head to get out of the way. It’s quite an adrenaline rush!

What makes it so challenging?
Most people involved with drone racing build their own aircraft. They start with a frame, a collection of motors, speed controllers and other electronics and put it all together.  When you crash your quadcopter, it’s much easier to fix, when you know how it’s built. Building a racing quadcopter is not easy, but one thing that I have learned is that you can learn anything on YouTube.

Screen capture from YouTube How To video for drones

I spent about 2 months building my first quadcopter and a lot of time on YouTube.  But it was all worth it. I felt a great sense of accomplishment when my first quadcopter was able to take off and fly.

As someone involved in technology, I understand problem solving. Programming is the ultimate problem solving exercise. With programming, you take a very complex problem that seems unsurmountable and break it into tiny little problems. If you can solve each of the tiny little problems, you can solve the big complex problem. It just takes tenacity and patience. This is the same with quadcopters, understanding the components that make up the drone allows you to fix it when something breaks.

What makes it so fun?
My whole life I have wanted to experience the feeling of flying. With FPV drone racing, that dream becomes a reality and I get to experience what it’s like to fly above the trees. 

Also, I love solving complex problems.  The feeling of accomplishment you get when you have struggled with a problem and overcome it is worth all of the effort. 

As CTO of Sanger & Eby I get to solve technology problems for our clients every day.  Drone racing is just another avenue to quench my thirst for a challenge.

Here's a video of a recent drone race in Cincinnati by Matthew Johnson: 


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