First-person drone racing is much harder than I expected
The floor extends in every direction as far as the eye can see, punctuated irregularly by oil barrels and pillars of rustic brick. The lighting is odd; bright white and purple, with hints of the London skyline through a distant window. For a brief moment, my vision is completely filled by a giant pair of shoes. But then the feet are gone! And the horizon is clear! I wish myself forward and upward… and I’m flying! FLYINGGG!!!
And then three seconds later I hit a barrel, a propeller flies off with a whiz-crunch, and I tumble gracelessly to the floor. The landing is hard, and somehow I’m flipped upside down. I lay there for a few minutes, neutered and useless, contemplating the poor life choices that led to this sad end.
Such is the brutality of first-person view (FPV) drone racing.
FPV drone racing (also sometimes known as FPV quadcopter racing) is a new sport that has rapidly grown in popularity over the last couple of years. Usually when you pilot a drone—some kind of DJI Phantom thing, for example—you simply use line of sight or a video feed from an on-board camera displayed on your smartphone or tablet.
In FPV racing, however, a video feed from the drone is transmitted to a pair of goggles that you strap to your face. The goggles are about the same size as an Oculus Rift but quite a lot lighter because there isn’t much tech in there (just an analogue radio receiver and a fairly low-res LCD panel). Analogue signals are used, I’m told, to reduce the latency between the camera and the goggles; the extra milliseconds incurred from handling a digital data stream make it much harder to pilot the drone.
Once you’re wearing the goggles, you grope around for your RC handset, flip the power switch… and then the fun begins.
Now, I’m fairly good at stuff that requires hand-eye coordination. I’ve flown remote-control stuff before (a glow-plug RC plane!), and usually I’m quick at picking new things up. I also knew that this particular quadcopter had some fancy electronics and gyroscopes on-board to keep the craft level.
But alas, it was all for nought: flying an FPV quadcopter is really hard. Basically, you have two control sticks: the left stick controls thrust and rotation around the Z axis, while the second stick controls planar movement on the X and Y axes. The idea is to use the left stick until you’re hovering at about hip height (about half thrust), and then tilt the right stick in the rough direction that you want to go in. I mostly just tried to go forward (that seemed like the sensible option), but even that proved difficult.
Crash and burn
After four or five attempts, I did eventually get the quadcopter to hover and bumble forward haphazardly for a couple of seconds—but then I lost control and somehow ended up on a windowsill with my rotor stuck in some kind of rustic bricky crevice. The instructor (Brett Collis, one of the UK’s top FPV pilots) told me to cut the power… so I did. My drone quickly fell from the windowsill to the hard floor, leaving my propeller stuck in the brick. Taking off with just three propellers is sadly not possible.
By way of comparison, though, I was with three other guys who were also trying FPV for the first time. None of them managed to fly in a straight line; most of them couldn’t quite find the right balance of throttle, vacillating between aggressively humping the floor and smashing into the ceiling. In hindsight, perhaps the event—which had been organised to promote the launch of Syfy’s new Killjoys series in the UK—should’ve been held in a big open field instead?
Since we first covered the British FPV scene last year, things have picked up steam quickly. Back then, FPV was more like a weekend hobby. At the end of August, though, there wasthe first UK Drone Nationals, and then in December the first UK Drone Show at the NEC in Birmingham. The top-placed pilots from the UK Drone Nationals (including our instructor Brett Collis) have now been invited to the 2016 Drone World Championships in Hawaii later this year, too.
Meanwhile, Thomas Greer, who began 2015 by launching the UK’s FPV League, is now the secretary of the new British FPV Racing Association. In fact, if you want to try out some FPV drone racing yourself, the FPV League is holding an open day on February 7—next Sunday. Everyone is welcome to attend.