From Youtube to Pilot – My Journey Into the World of FPV Drone Racing (Part 1)

It started innocently enough. A video linked on youtube showing some “pilots” gathered in the woods. An obviously well organized group, with safety crews, a well marked course, and referees. The pilots were several guys sitting in camping chairs, with goofy looking goggles on, or staring intently into small video screens.

Then the racing started, and the viewpoint shifted to the nose of the craft zipping in and out of the trees. It immediately evoked memories of the speeder bikes from Return of the Jedi, tearing in and out and around trees in the forest. The craft in the video were lit up with LEDs that made them glow brightly… even as your competitor passed above you on a fast straight, or swung wide on a turn.

Quickly, other videos started appearing up showing similar craft and activities. People were getting together to race small remote controlled ‘drones’.  I was intrigued.  These were custom built, complicated radio control models, but I felt they were within my skill set to construct and fly.

I had to do this.

First though, I had to figure out what the heck I was looking at!  I was no stranger to radio control aircraft.  People have been building planes with cameras attached to them for ages.  I knew that in the last year or three, some Makers have build ‘quadcopters’.  Small, maneuverable aircraft that could move up, down, sideways, and spin in place either autonomously or via remote control.  As I saw these being demontrated, I thought the idea was interesting, but the limited flight time, carrying capacity, and expense were just not worth getting involved in.

Then several things changed.

First, the wide availability of Lithium Polymer, or LiPO batteries. In the Radio Control world, LiPO’s had been gaining ground, and in 2013 they’d reached a density and weight where they made sense on very small, light craft.

Second, small portable HD cameras were becoming more available. By far, the best known are the GoPro Hero Cameras, but more recently, the Mobius camera has become the unit of choice. It’s small, well built, has excellent resolution, and fits well on small flying vehicles.

Last but not least is the availability of relatively inexpensive First Person View, or FPV equipment. FPV had been possible in the past, but the equipment was bulky and expensive. Modern gear can be extremely small and light, and easily installed by a new model builder.

All these things came together to produce what can only be described as a skyrocketing interest in building small, highly maneuverable ‘drones’, getting ‘behind the wheel’ of one (via goggles or video link), and going flying. Or, even more fascinating… going RACING.

I had to do it.

I watched tons of videos on Youtube. This sport is still relatively new. Most races and groups have only been flying for 6-8 months. The equipment design and processes for building and flying are still being worked out, but the basics are pretty well set. I spent my first 2-3 weeks just understanding all the parts of a drone, what was needed, how they worked, and how things came together.

Here’s the gist of it.

First, there’s a heck of a lot of weird terminology.  Here’s a good glosssary of terms to start you off.

What is commonly known as a “Racing Drone” is a 250mm (that’s corner to corner) lightweight frame with 4 brushless motors on the limbs. The motors are told what to do starting with a Flight Controller, an on board computer that provides stability to the drone, as well as takes commands from the radio receiver, and tells the motors what to do.  The Flight Controller (or “FC”) communicates with Electronic Speed Controllers (or “ESC”) – one per motor – that varies the speed of the motor based on commands from the flight controller. Powering all this is a LiPO battery that’s usually set up to provide 5-7 minutes of flight time per charge. The drone receives it’s commands via radio link using a radio receiver, which is paired to a handheld radio transmitter the pilot carries.

That describes the drone platform itself, but if you want to do FPV, you’ll also need a camera (FPV cameras are small and relatively low resolution), a video transmitter and antenna, and a video receiver and display setup.

That, in a nutshell, describes an 250mm FPV Mini Racing Drone. From this basic design, many things can be added or enhanced. Adding an HD camera is very common (the HD camera records the flying sessions for viewing later. The pilot flies just via the FPV camera) – this is where the cool videos come from. Adding other features such as a GPS receiver, a system that can interface the flight controller data with the FPV display (called an On Screen Display, or OSD) can let the pilot see realtime data from the drone as it’s flying (Altitude, speed, position, battery level, distance from pilot, even an indicator showing the pilot how to get the drone back to them). These are fun additions, but aren’t required for racing (some pilots will argue having all that junk on the OSD can just distract you from the racing).

In addition to the parts needed to build a drone, every pilot has a whole infrastructure of materials to make the flying possible. A LiPO battery charger is required. Because LiPO batteries are pretty complex, the chargers tend to be fairly involved pieces of equipment, and pilots need to understand how a LiPO works, how it’s rated, what configuration it’s in, how to charge it, etc.

Spare parts are also a requirement. It’s common to break props many times a day, so keeping spares is a necessity. Zip ties, velcro straps, spare motors, ESC’s, these are all tools in the arsenal.

But enough about that, how’d I get from “What a cool thing!” to being out and flying?

That will come in my next blog post!

Update:  check out part 2 !



A wandering geek. Toys, shiny things, pursuits and distractions.

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