Flying aces in folding chairs

With a global championship held in Sacramento last week, professional drone racing is approaching the stratosphere

Olaf Hishwa solders a lead to the LED lights on a Demon Power Systems racing drone before the California Drone Speed Challenge Level 2 finals on Thursday, July 19, at Golden 1 Center. Hishwa is a 16-year-old from Bethesda, Md., and a “techie” for his team.

Olaf Hishwa solders a lead to the LED lights on a Demon Power Systems racing drone before the California Drone Speed Challenge Level 2 finals on Thursday, July 19, at Golden 1 Center. Hishwa is a 16-year-old from Bethesda, Md., and a “techie” for his team.

Photo by Mark Billingsley

Noa Koch knew his team was close to the $10,000 prize. Their drones were consistently fast, buzzing around the lower bowl at the Golden 1 Center on July 19 for the California Drone Speed Challenge Level 2, the second year of the competition in Sacramento. It looked like a game of TRON. The Swedish captain of Team Elefun could see the video feed of the their drone in his visor goggles as teammate Oscar Nillson piloted from a folding chair on the cement floor. Nillson and the drone were leading, turning fast times around the course and averaging 22 seconds a lap.

Then it all went wrong. A bad twist of the joystick made the drone zig when it should have zagged. The drone bounced off a “lollipop” gate and tumbled into the stands. The bobble forced a two-lap penalty, and Team Canada spun into the lead, followed by Heart of America and Demon Power Systems.

Without missing a beat, teammate Eric Holden flipped the switch on another drone as Koch took over the controls. The drone rose several feet off the ground, rushed through a circular gate at the end of the pits and took off back into the course.

“I knew I had to start flying in an extra gear,” said Koch, a 22-year-old software engineer from Sweden.

That extra gear gave Team Elefun the championship, a four-second victory over Heart of America. Both teams finished 43 laps while Team Canada finished in third with 42 laps. Demon Power Systems, with a pair of 16- and 15-year-old pilots, took fourth.

“I want to win so badly I can’t stand it,” said Shawn Ames, Heart of America’s captain. “I’ll have to apologize to my neighbor again for the noise during my training sessions.”

Drone racing has skyrocketed in just two years. The Aerial Sports League holds national and international championships, including in Sacramento, and while no pilot has quit their day job, perhaps it’s almost time. If you can make a living playing video games, why not piloting these tiny flying machines?

The drones are built on a 12-by-6-inch carbon-fiber chassis, with four motors spinning four plastic rotors. A microprocessor controls the bot, and a battery powers LED lights to tell the very similar drones apart as they whiz by at speeds approaching 80 miles per hour. At these indoor races, those batteries last about two minutes, so pit stops are key. The pilots man a control box with two joysticks, and each pilot wears goggles slightly smaller than a typical VR headset.

Lance Ulmer has flown drones competitively for less than a year, but he’s hooked. Being one of the earliest pro-level pilots in the sport is an added bonus, the 24-year-old said.

“There’s a big learning curve initially, so you have to get over the hump of learning about electronics,” said Ulmer, a software engineer for a Rocklin-based business software consulting firm, “learning how to solder and those things. It’s getting to the point now where you can buy one and fly it, but for what we’re doing with speed, you have to tailor it to your flying style and to the tracks.”

Ulmer’s team did not make the final event but did win the consolation race, good for fifth place.

“We raced really hard,” Ulmer said. “I’m really proud of the guys, and all of my stuff is still working, and that’s pretty rare.”

Technology in drone racing has come by leaps and bounds just in those two years, but it still has a long way to go. People have dabbled in digital video, Ulmer said, and the receivers are getting better. That makes the indoor races much easier for pilots and spectators.

“With the LEDs on the quads, they’re much easier to see inside than when we race outside,” Ulmer said. “You pretty much have to be looking through the video feed to appreciate it.”

And then there are the X Class rigs, which are two to three times bigger than the current drones and easier for the audience to see, Ulmer said.

“They’re like lawnmowers flying around,” he said. “They go even faster than our drones. There’s a dirt track oval in the Bay Area where they’ve been racing [X Class].”

Being an early adopter of the racing tech and gaining prestige as a pilot has Ulmer excited for the future of the sport and for himself. And while the number of pilots on his level is small, and without the fame and million-dollar sponsorship cash to separate the pilots, they still enjoy an esprit de corps.

“We’re all really competitive,” Ulmer said. “But we still all like to have fun.”