Game Of Drones: Drone Racing Takes Flight In Los Angeles

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(Saul Gonzalez / Only A Game)
(Saul Gonzalez / Only A Game)

On a high school football field in Los Angeles, a pack of small drones raced low to the ground through an obstacle course. The drones looked like cyborg insects, with metal arms and whirring rotors sticking out. They were racing at the first officially sanctioned drone race in the L.A.-area, sponsored by the International Drone Racing Association.

Drone pilot Dan Worger said it's a small scene now, with custom-built drones prone to their share of mechanical failures. But he says the sky's the limit for competitive drone racing.

When racing, the drones can reach speeds of up to 70 mph and do barrel rolls, loop-de-loops, and even backflips.

"I see the beginnings of this drone industry similar to, say, something like the car, the automotive industry -- all of these companies coming out and making different drones and different racing drones," he said.

The battery-powered racing drones are lightweight and small. When hovering, they sound a lot like a swarm of irritated bees from the sound of their tiny spinning rotors. But when racing, the drones can reach speeds of up to 70 mph and do barrel rolls, loop-de-loops, and even backflips — which encourages some racers to showboat even as they race.

Drones prepare to take off from the starting line. (Saul Gonzalez / OAG)
Bigger and faster or smaller and more nimble? That's one question every drone pilot faces. (Saul Gonzalez/OAG)

"It feels like you are in a mini F-16 fighter jet, so it’s super fun," said Kyle Hidalgo, a self-confessed adrenaline junkie and former off-road motorcyclist.

Hidalgo has been drone racing for about a year. Like the other pilots at the race, he wore high-tech goggles that were wirelessly connected to small cameras on the drones. The goggles give pilots the feeling that they're sitting in a virtual cockpit aboard the drone.

"The thrill of it is being in the goggles," Hidalgo said. "It’s just a whole other level, a whole other world. When you are flipping and rolling, going hundreds of feet up, back down. The first time I started flying this and going up really high over trees and back down like 150 feet to about 10 feet, I felt like I was on a roller coaster. I had that feeling in my chest like I was dropping down. You feel like you're on board."

[While not from the L.A. race, this video shows what it's like to wear the goggles during a drone race.]

Crash And Learn

Along with sheer piloting skill, another way racers try to get the edge on each other is with drone design. Do you build a heavier drone with more power and speed or decide to go light and agile with a very small drone called a "micro"?

"For us, we are going more towards the Formula-1 style," Worger said. "We want something that is sleek, lightweight but has got a huge power-to-weight ratio. That's where we’re going with the micro world. ... The bigger ones will beat us — they are more powerful in a straight line on a straightaway, but ours are really good, say, for a more technical course, lots of corners, 180s. That’s where we hold."

At this competition in the early days of competitive drone racing, there were plenty of glitches. One big problem pilots faced was scrambled video signals coming from the drones' cameras. When that happened, pilots got images from drones that others were flying. That meant lots of crashes.

As he prepared to fly, pilot Christian Casada explained his strategy for the heats, which each lasted two to three minutes around the football field.

Hidalgo shows off one of his racing drones and its controller. (Saul Gonzalez / OAG)
Kyle Hidalgo shows off one of his racing drones and its controller. (Saul Gonzalez/Only A Game)

"To win, just don't crash," he said. "You can win going slow. But if you don't crash, you will win."

The sport is so new, there's no such thing as a veteran in the drone racing scene. At the race in L.A., there were young people allured by the high-tech competition.

"I like the fact that you can be from one place to the other in matter of seconds," said 13-year-old Anakin Peace. "It’s really fast and it’s really fun."

Peace enjoys tinkering with his drone as well.

"I love building it, and I love watching it crash and then repairing it and getting all the motors to spin for the first time," he said. "That’s like the best part."

Building something new and learning from both successes and failures in competition — talking to young Anakin, it's easy to think of the same thing a century or so ago during the earliest days of automobile or airplane racing.

This segment aired on August 8, 2015.



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