The strange and high-speed world of drone racing

Original author: Ian Frazier
  • Transfer
Translation of an article from The New Yorker on FPV quadcopter competitions and their participants. For ease of reading and commenting, we divided the text into parts, this is the first passage.

image

In a canyon in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, located near the city of Fort Collins in Colorado, a young man named Jordan Temkin drives a drone. On Temkin, video glasses that broadcast video from a camera built into the drone, and in his hands he holds a console with a pair of joysticks that control direction, roll, pitch, yaw, and flight speed. The pilot puts the drone on the gravel at his feet. The river Cache la Powder flows a little lower. The slopes of the canyon rise ninety meters above it. Temkin gives the command, and the drone instantly takes off to the top of the canyon. Then he hovering in the sky, from where a man seems like a small figure sitting on board a car. The shadow of the drone flashes on the surface of the rocks, rushing at a speed of 128 km / h. Then the pilot lowers the device to the river and he flies half a meter from the water. The river shimmers with silver in the sun. Темкин снова поднимает дрон повыше и поворачивает в соседний каньон.


The battery supply for the drone is about three minutes. Before time runs out, Temkin lowers the drone next to him. Landing on gravel sounds like a knock from a falling plastic toy. And the drone itself looks like a toy. Temkin calls him a “quadrocopter”. The quadrocopter has four plastic propellers, each on the corner of a cross-shaped plastic frame. Typically, these drones are called "quads." The whole device would easily fit in a package for one slice of pizza. An immeasurable amount of scientific and technological discoveries, like a huge inverted pyramid, converge at this tiny, toy point.

image
Jordan Temkin, photo Engadget

At twenty-six, Temkin retained those sweet, serene manners of his beloved, but not spoiled child. He is eighty meters tall, dark-haired, with Asian features. Dressed in black jeans, a black T-shirt with a small silver DRL logo, a navy blue sweatshirt with an unzipped zipper, and white and yellow sneakers. When people ask Temkin how he makes a living, he replies that he controls toy helicopters. He concluded that this is a good description of his new calling. Temkin is a professional drone pilot, one of the best in the new sport. To practice, he flies in the mountains as often as he can.

Temkin often flies with Zahri Thayer, his housemate in Fort Collins, and other professional pilots. Thayer is somewhat denser than Temkin, with magical blue eyes and a broad beard. Both come from the west coast of the United States: Temkin from Seattle, and Thayer from Laguna Niguel, from California County Orange. They met at a drone race in Sacramento in 2015, where they were rivals. Temkin graduated from the University of Colorado with a humanitarian diploma and was looking for someone to rent a house with, so the pilots decided to live together. Temkin found other local drone pilots on the net. A gathering of local enthusiasts joined together in the Big Whoop group, named so because at first they were not very impressive pilots. The current successes of Temkin and Thayer have given shine to this name. Temkin races under the pseudonym "Jet", educated from his initials. Thayer has a different nickname - A_Nub, which originally meant "newbie", which Thayer is no longer. He retained the nickname because it was under him that he gained fame among fans of racing on drones.

image

Big Whoop, Instagram photo by Jordan Temkin
“When we just started flying, I knew almost nothing,” Temkin told me in Fort Collins last fall. - I made my first drone based on the layout, which I found on the network and printed on my 3D printer. I ordered spare parts for him, put everything together and started flying. I liked it, but I crashed all the time. Today we can lay such maneuvers that we could not even dream of a couple of years ago. Partly because technology has improved, and partly because our skills have improved. ”

image
From left to right: Jordan Temkin, Zach Thayer, Travis MacIntyre. Engadget Photos

Jordan and Zack (switch from surnames to their names, which seems to suit them better) often fly with their friend and roommate, Travis MacIntyre - a thin, broadly smiling fellow with a degree in philosophy. If Zach and Jordan fly for the competition, but Travis - to unwind and it is more interesting for him to collect drones. He rarely competes with professionals. His contribution to the common cause, for the most part, lies in the carefree fun, from which Travis easily switches to a serious mood. Big Whoop is even fooling around with drones in a serious way: if a drone crashes in the mountains, they go and get it. Once they attracted a pair of familiar professional climbers to this and climbed along the ropes with them. When they broke the drone in the river, they rented wetsuits and dived for it. Pilots claim that they lost only one drone.


The world of flying drones is divided into two parts. Most people immediately think of military drones. Drones Predator and Reaper, which shoot rockets and are engaged in reconnaissance, are unmanned aerial vehicles with propellers equipped with internal combustion engines. Their lethality gives sinister meaning to the word drone. The quadcopter, the most popular type of civilian drone, flies on an electric motor powered by batteries. Usually they have four propellers, but some may have more (note: all rotor copters are a subtype of a multicopter) ; some craftsmen made drones with fifty propellers. All drones are controlled by radio signals. Many military drones receive signals from the earth via satellite. Other drones operate on a signal that is received from the control panel within line of sight.

image
One of the homemade drones of Jordan Temkin, photo from Facebook

People who control drones for entertainment and other peaceful purposes usually buy ready-made devices in stores or via the Internet. Some of these drones are large, like bedside tables. Most copters available in stores limit the pilot’s field of view to direct visibility, that is, they need to be controlled in the same way as radio-controlled cars or aircraft models. Drones, which are sent by pilots using an on-board camera through video glasses, allow you to maneuver much more precisely. They belong to a subcategory called FPV, which stands for first-person view. Drone racing in its modern form would not have been possible without FPV systems.

image


The number of quadrocopters is constantly growing thanks to smartphones. In order for the image on the smartphone’s display to be correctly oriented all the time, the gadget must know which side the top is in, as well as its vertical and horizontal position. A tool called an accelerometer that measures the change in speed with respect to the gravity of the Earth (translator's note: in fact, the accelerometer works a little differently ), is responsible for the first function, and the gyroscope - for the second. Both of them are usually enclosed in a separate tiny component, which is actively used in the development of game controllers. Smartphones popularized the technology, and their prevalence ensured such a production volume of the combined module of the accelerometer-gyroscope that it became cheap enough for use in quadrocopters.

image
Disassembled quadrocopter, photo from Facebook by Jordan Temkin

The accelerometer and gyroscope help the quadrocopter maintain balance. Now imagine it hanging in the air, with propellers spinning parallel to the ground. The drone has no rudder and flaps to control flight; instead, he maneuvers by adjusting the speed and, sometimes, the angle of his propellers. Commands that indicate how and when to change rotation come through radio signals that the on-board hardware decrypts into computer code. Jordan, Zach, Travis and other Big Whoop pilots collect their own drones. Drone stabilization algorithms can be downloaded in free form from the Internet, but Zack can experiment and write his own code. Jordan, with his art education, mastered the art of soldering tiny contours in a flight controller.


An FPV camera that transmits video to pilot’s glasses is an analog system. Her image lacks the sharpness of digital shooting. However, analogue broadcasts come in real time when digital broadcasts are a hundred milliseconds behind. Such a tiny difference is enough to interfere with high-speed piloting, so on-board digital cameras are usually used for shooting video. These cameras are called GoPro - the most popular brand. The videos they shoot are breathtaking.


If you want to know how it feels to fly at a speed of 128 km / h through abandoned steel mills, hospitals, shopping malls, warehouses and similar places, a wide selection of videos shot on GoPro await you on YouTube. Some records from drones will take you to forest trails, allow you to fly with seagulls over the ocean waves, or admire the mountain canyons from the height of an eagle (Big Whoop pilots specialize in the latter genre). Jordan claims that he can look at the video and say who is flying the drone, because everyone has their own distinctive style. Thousands of fans watch Jordan and Zach's videos online.


I saw the first quadcopter in my life about four years ago when I was walking along Fifth Avenue. It looked like one of the trays that they put on their knees for breakfast in bed, only with propellers. He was carried by a young man, and I felt a passing desire to follow him. Two years later, I found a small drone on a tree in a park next to my New Jersey home. That copter was round and made of white plastic, about 15 centimeters across, without a camera - a typical newcomer drone. I studied it in amazement, worthy of a prehistoric man. The four drone propellers seemed intact. It does not appear to have crashed into a tree. Rather, someone intentionally placed the drone here at eye level so that the pilot who lost it could find his copter. I considered this a good omen and returned the find to its place.

The growing popularity of drones went through an early period, when everyone who tried to control an FPV drone would certainly break it. Show of flying models included demonstration areas for drones, fenced from floor to ceiling with a grid like the one that can be seen on golf courses. There the pilots could have fun with their drones. At the Academy of Aviation Models exhibition in the Midlands Corporate Park, the distinctive rattling sound of falling copters indicated the area allocated for drones. Most demonstrations included a short flight and an unexpected fall; and then the pilots huddled together, trying to assess the damage.

image
Drone Day at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City. Photo source: official center page on Facebook

One Sunday at the beginning of March 2016, I visited Drones Day at the Jersey City Science Center. Then I had to circle around in order to find a free parking place. Children of all ages and nationalities strayed to watch the drone battles (few contacts, many falls), races (even more falls, but few real races taking place on the track installed in the museum), and in the IMAX cinema, the winning pictures of New York Drones Film Festival. Enthusiastic children swarmed everywhere, some with their own aircraft. Racers, mostly 20-year-olds from the FPV Addiction group, gathered around them spectacular children whose parents patiently waited nearby.

image
Drone Day at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City. Photo source: official center page on Facebook

I first saw Jordan and Zach competing on August 7, 2016, at an event called the US National Drone Racing Championship, hosted by an organization called the Sports Drone Association. At that time, I knew only the nicknames of the pilots. Спортивная ассоциация дронов, или D.S.A., в основном существует в сети. According to her official statement, during a series of qualifying competitions across the country, a group of thirty pilots was prepared, who participated in the championship. The race track, marked with plastic rings, gates and flags, was located on a grass field on Governors Island in New York Bay. According to the commentator of the championship, Wilbur Wright took off from this very field in 1909 in order to complete his famous flight of the Statue of Liberty. Today will be the same historic day утверждал комментатор.

image
Drone Racing Championship, Governors Island, New York. Photo Source: Quartz
Spectators filled the stands set at the finish; flags of sponsors flew over the track and platform, where the pilots sat. Commercial tents with goods related to the world of drones lined up along one side of the field, and large monitors with split screens showed a view from the cameras of the participating drones. There was even a VIP box, mostly empty. The founder of the association, Scott Refsland, delivered a speech. He noted that the event was broadcasting the ESPN sports channel for the first time, and he proclaimed the drone race “the new NASCAR”.

image
Drone Racing Championship, Governors Island, New York. Photo Source: Quartz

However, the event was not in the best way, since no one had worked out the possible problems in advance. Unlike the Wright brothers, who were solving all their technical difficulties in solitude in a pasture in Ohio, the organizers of the DSA race apparently faced some basic difficulties for the first time. So, Wi-Fi connections of viewer smartphones filled the narrow radio frequency band needed by the pilot to communicate with flying devices. Establishing and maintaining open channels proved to be a risky undertaking. Due to the large amount of interference, fewer pilots could compete in each race, so the number of rides had to be increased. In addition, even to start had a lot of trouble. Separated screens were clogged with snow all the time and turned off. The commentator continued to repeat: “If you have Wi-Fi, please turn it off ... We have problems with the radio channel ... please turn off your personal Wi-Fi and hot spots ... Do the judges have a video? .. When we finally start, everything will be so great! Please viewers, turn off Wi-Fi. ”

image
Drone Racing Championship, Governors Island, New York. Photo Source: Quartz

Drones constantly fell and went astray. Jordan's drone flew into the superstructure over the finish line and got stuck in it, so the pilot had to climb up to get it. Zach arrived at the qualifying round half-asleep the day before. He drove all night from Orange County, where he was the best man at the wedding. However, in a state of serious lack of sleep, he managed to surpass his surroundings, finding comfort in flight. During his finals in the final, Zak sat on a platform dedicated to the pilots, swinging back and forth to the beat of the vision movement in the video glasses, and in the end won the first prize - ten thousand dollars, plus an additional two thousand for the freestyle competition. By the end of the evening, many spectators dispersed, never realizing what they had just seen. Now the Sports Drone Association is either inactive or has ceased to exist.


When I visited Jordan, Zach, and Travis in Fort Collins, they lived in a one-story house in the private sector, next to the open prairie. I arrived at about 11 a.m. so as not to wake them. Zach was supposed to be at home, but at the last minute decided to attend a drones race in Seoul. He was invited there as a celebrity pilot, not a competitor. Jordan asked me to take off my shoes. I was amazed at the order that reigned in their home. In my 26 years I could not even dream of anything like that.

A two-meter shelf with trophies was central to the living room - with prizes from races in Phoenix, Detroit, Orlando, Louisville, and Dubai, among other things. Some reached a height of a meter and resembled abstract sculptures. The real center of the house was the basement, where they immediately led me. In America there are tens of millions of such cellars: the floor is carpeted, bare concrete walls, high basement windows, open air ducts and pipes under the ceiling, a boiler in the corner ... It feels like someone is constantly hiding from family affairs. This particular basement was filled with the buzz of inventions and ambitions familiar to the Wright brothers. On the walls, instead of the usual music posters and copies of road signs, there were several huge checks that were given out to winners for news shots. На некоторых были нанесены логотипы гонок и четырехзначные суммы посредине.

image
Spare parts for copters, a photo from Jordan Temkin’s Instagram.
Here and there, there were racks with shelves full of disassembled quadrocopters. “Most of them are our unsuccessful creations that didn't work the way we wanted,” Jordan said. - This quadrocopter case, for example, was my very first drone, which I printed on a 3D printer. You may notice thin lines where the printer laid out a new layer. All these twelve to fifteen boxes along the walls are filled with propellers. We spend them in thousands. Here in this box are a bunch of packages with propellers made by one of our sponsors. ” He pulled out the packaging and showed a photograph with him and Zack on a label that looked like an old-fashioned box of oatmeal in design.

image
Spare parts for copters, photos from Instagram by Jordan Temkin
Around were soldering irons, extension cords, numerous battery boxes of varying degrees of freshness, quadcopter motors, control panels, FPV glasses with a large Fat Shark inscription (the name of the main manufacturer of such glasses), quadrocopters of different sizes. There was everything, including pocket mini-drones, with which pilots shoot videos from the height of an insect's flight: they fly around their living rooms and kitchens, maneuver between the legs of chairs and pillows of sofas and around a can of peanut butter on the table. Such an abundance of technology gave the basement the look of a wizard's workshop. On the side stood a multi-level racing trophy, which seemed out of place here.

“Ah, that,” Travis said when I asked about the goblet. - Once we sat and talked, looked at him and wondered if he could fly. Well, we attached motors and propellers to it, and tested it the next day. He flew quite well, especially for a heavy, almost one meter racing trophy. "


Daily drone piloting was at the core of the schedule. After a lunch at a Fort Collins eatery (wooden tables, luxury combos, homemade soda), Jordan and Travis drove us on a new Subaru WRX hatchback owned by Jordan to the Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge and then on to the Cache la River Canyon Powder The river, which is known as the Puder, is one of the best places for trout fishing in the state, and there is a descent to the water every 400 meters. We stopped near a narrow passage near the canyon wall, pulled out our equipment, put on our glasses, and sent the drones in flight. The rock formations of the canyon resembled books on a bookshelf. Occasionally, a stone pillar stood out like a bare book spine. Drones glided along the vertical cliffs, almost touching them, and then flew into the undersized juniper on the slope. Их моторы стрекотали, как швейная машинка.

We had additional FPV glasses so that I could follow what was happening with the pilot. I came to the conclusion that this is impossible to do without clutching the car tightly. With each jump and dive, the first-person view with glasses makes the unaccustomed brain foresee an imminent death. After a couple of minutes, I took off my glasses with great relief. Watching drones without them, I first noticed a cubic black shadow pattern cast off by the canyon rocks. While Jordan was piloting the drone, Travis told me about a flock of geese flying by, which he tried to attach himself to on his drone, and how suddenly a bear appeared in front of his copter. He returned the drone to look at the beast again, but the bear, it seemed, did not bother him at all.


Jordan's drone collided with a juniper branch and fell. Putting down his glasses, the pilot quickly climbed the steep slope and returned with the drone, battery and GoPro camera. The crash of the drone, in which it scatters to pieces, is called a “yard sale”, the same term refers to the fall of a skier who has lost his equipment in the process. Jordan practiced ski acrobatics, but abandoned the sport in his late teens after accidentally breaking his knee on his own head and lying in bed for a month. Like many other drone pilots, he replaced strenuous physical sport with one where you crash into something only indirectly.

Zack appeared at home the next morning, after an overnight flight from South Korea. Apparently, he did not notice the change of time zones. The newcomer sat on the couch in his living room in a T-shirt and a pair of baggy black pants adorned with white Star Wars stormtrooper patterns, and praised the South Korean government, which was encouraging the development of drone technology. The country's authorities have established a public drone park on the outskirts of Seoul and hold regular drone races that are visited by thousands of people. In Korean schools, as part of STEM programs, instructions are given for assembling drones. “Friendly people, great food, fun nightlife in Times Square in Seoul, lots of drone racing fans,” Zack said. “South Korea is one of the best countries in the world for drones.”


Video shot by Zack Thayer in South Korea.

“At the international level, Koreans are on average the best pilots. I, as rivals, am most afraid of them, ”added Jordan.

I especially wanted to ask Zach about the video I saw on the Internet where the drone competed with electric cars. Zack controlled that drone.


“Yes, it was awesome,” he said, laughing. - This happened last summer during the two-day Formula E race on the highway in Brooklyn, in the Red Hook area. We competed against an electric car on a drone that we assembled ourselves. The drone was three square feet in size, weighed 18 kilograms, and emitted a terrifying roar - you could feel it tearing air. It accelerates to 177 km / h. Drones do not need time to accelerate, because they reach maximum speed almost instantly. After the start, I left the electric car so far behind that it seemed like it was not moving. The drone was going great, but then began to scour, there was not enough space to slow down. This overloaded the system, which was not intended for such a healthy drone. I was scared that I couldn’t land it safely, so I let it go up, and then flew right into the track. He broke into about a million pieces and earned the loudest applause that weekend. ”

The end of the first part. You can read the second one at this link .