Drone racing in the Bay

By Juliet Rowan

2 comments
Drone racing is sweeping the globe and poised to become a professional sport. Juliet Rowan talks to local enthusiasts who liken the buzz to sitting in the cockpit of a jet fighter, or playing video games with real-world consequences.

"It's like being a Top Gun," Bay systems engineer AJ Christensen says of drone racing.

"It's fight or flight. You've got to go faster than the guy in front of you."

AJ, 27, has been racing drones for a year and says it brings out a competitive streak.

"You're flying as fast as you possibly can, trying not to screw up. It's really, really fun."

He says crashing is "a rite of passage" (he crashed the very first time he flew a drone) but there is no threat of physical harm to the pilot. "It de-risks the need for speed, but still totally satisfies it as well."

It's almost like gaming being combined with real life. There's real-world consequences if you crash.
Steve Murray

AJ is part of a group of men who meet most weekends to race drones in Tauranga and Rotorua.

Legal restrictions dictate where racing can take place (drones are not allowed within 4km of an airport), but the small carbon-fibre drones used in racing mean courses can be compact.

Mat Wellington, director of national drone racing league Rotor Cross NZ, says a field 50m by 100m is all it takes for good-sized courses. "If they're too big, it's just about going fast for a long time which doesn't have a whole lot of skill."

Races last two minutes and pit four drones travelling up to 130km/h less than 3m above the ground in a close-flying battle. Limits are placed on the drones' battery and propeller size to keep competitors on a level playing field and courses can include hoops, chicanes and other obstacles around which pilots must manoeuvre.

Each drone has a video camera carrying a live digital feed of the drone's position to goggles the pilot is wearing. This provides a unique first-person view (FPV) that sets drone racing apart from conventional model aircraft flying.

"It gives you a huge sensation of being able to go places you naturally wouldn't go," says Tauranga racer Steve Murray, while Rotorua drone retailer Lee McKenzie says it is a natural fit for those with video gaming backgrounds.


THE DRONE BUZZ

Drone racing is surging in popularity worldwide and Rotor Cross NZ held its first national championship in March.

The organisation's inaugural meeting in January last year featured seven pilots - now there are seven chapters nationwide with a total of 80 active pilots.

Mat says a third of pilots have a traditional hobby flying background but the rest have no previous experience operating radio-controlled aircraft.

At present, the sport is male-dominated - Rotor Cross NZ has only one female drone racer - but its ranks include real-life helicopter and airline pilots.

Results from Rotor Cross NZ competitions are fed into a global database and several Kiwi drone racers currently rank in the world's top 25.

Some of the world's best racers are teenagers, with a 15-year-old British boy winning the recent World Drone Prix in Dubai. He walked away with US$250,000 ($369,000), while a 16-year-old is among seven New Zealanders heading to the World Drone Racing Championships in Hawaii in October.

Retired Tauranga police officer Steve Murray, 61, gets great joy out of building and racing drones. Photo/George Novak
Retired Tauranga police officer Steve Murray, 61, gets great joy out of building and racing drones. Photo/George Novak

Mat says drone racing is also poised to become a professional sport as big-name sponsors and media outlets realise the audience and earning potential. Last month, television giant ESPN bought the rights to broadcast drone racing worldwide. Says Tauranga drone designer Jason Seaward: "It's going to be the next big spectator sport."

THE MEN BEHIND THE MACHINES

Jason, a draftsman with an engineering, IT and electronics background, is one of a number of drone racers turning to designing and building their own machines. "We're keeping up with the technology, which is the hardest thing," the 28-year-old says.

Jason has designed five mini-quad frames ("quad" or "quadcopter" refers to four-rotor helicopters, and drone racers use lightweight mini-quads). He says shorter X-shaped frames suit acrobatics and longer H or K-shaped ones, forward flying. Jason sells his frames on Quad Junkie, an online mini-quad store operated by fellow Tauranga drone enthusiast, Gary Hawkins, who also helps Jason with the drone design.

Tauranga drone racers Jason Seaward, left, and Gary Hawkins. Photo/George Novak
Tauranga drone racers Jason Seaward, left, and Gary Hawkins. Photo/George Novak

Gary, 45, does drone photography in his job as a quantity surveyor, but says the FPV, speed and aerobatic rolls and flips of drone racing are exhilarating and addictive. "It's basically sitting in the cockpit of a jet fighter without the G forces."

Gary carries goggles to give passerbys a try and says their reaction is always the same. "Wow, this is amazing. Where can I buy one?"

Tauranga drone racers Gary Hawkins, left, and Jason Seaward. Photo/George Novak
Tauranga drone racers Gary Hawkins, left, and Jason Seaward. Photo/George Novak

Kiwis account for 95 per cent of business on Quad Junkie and Gary says it is hard to keep pace of the sport's development.

He began flying model aeroplanes with his father in the late 70s and got into drones six years ago. "When I first started, there was no one else in Tauranga really doing it. Then I met a few guys and now we have a little network on Facebook and there's 45 [in the group]."

The members of Tauranga Multirotor Racing (TMR) meet up most weekends at locations including Ohauiti Reserve, where the council has given permission for them to fly.

Age groups range from young to old. The youngest guy would be 16, up to 65 plus.
Gary Hawkins

Steve Murray, 61, is a retired police officer and started racing drones in October.
He had already owned drones to film nature scenes but says the speed of racing drones is intoxicating and operating them requires practice and dexterity. "It just takes time and crash after crash after crash."

Steve enjoys the camaraderie of TMR, saying other members often tell him, "If you're not crashing, you're not flying hard enough."

The drone's carbon-fibre frames are relatively tough and the most easily damaged parts - the propellers - cost as little as $1 to replace, so Steve always carries a bag full of spares.

His wife acts as spotter during races, collecting the drones when he crashes. "It's good exercise for us, isn't it. In our 60s, we need to get out there and walk a bit more."

CATERING FOR DEMAND

Steve has bought three drones and built five others, despite not being electronically minded.

He says the satisfaction in building a drone is immense, although he is yet to add up the total he has spent. "I probably wouldn't see change out of $10,000."

Rotorua's AJ Christensen says learning to build your own drones is a necessity because of the high crash rate. "I have only two running at the moment but, in my graveyard, there's probably 10 frames and parts to bring them all back to life."

Steve Murray with a couple of his racing drones. Photo/George Novak
Steve Murray with a couple of his racing drones. Photo/George Novak

Getting started in drone racing costs between $1000 and $2000 for a quad frame, goggles, video camera and associated equipment.

Several NZ businesses now cater to drone enthusiasts, who previously had to pay high shipping costs and wait to get replacement parts from overseas.

In the Bay, as well as Quad Junkie, there is IV Rotor, run by Rotorua father of two Lee McKenzie.

Lee, 29, a former dairy farmer and trainee draughtsman, works full-time for his online store, and says there are many merits to drone racing, including bringing video gamers into the real world and teaching people problem-solving, technical and electronics skills.

Lee has given his 2-year-old son Jordan an old, inert drone to tinker with and says the toddler loves watching him race. "It's the only time we can get him to keep still."

Lee belongs to a group called Rotorua Drone Racers and is keen to get others involved in the sport, saying racers are searching for indoor venues such as barns and warehouses where they can race during winter. "One tiny drip on the wings means you have this ridiculous blur you can't see through so you have to land straight away." And that sounds like a prospect no drone racer would enjoy.

Drone racing online
Rotor Cross New Zealand FPV Racing League: rotorcross.co.nz
Drone racing groups in the Bay: TMR (Tauranga Multirotor Racing) and Rotorua Drone Racers both have Facebook pages. Bay-based online drone stores: quadjunkie.co.nz and ivrotor.com

- Bay of Plenty Times

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