RISING is here at the Forest Rally Section of Goodwood’s Festival of Speed to have a high-velocity encounter with the latest adrenaline racing phenomenon – drone racing. The first time you see a super-specialised 100mph racing drone in the flesh, you think that an RC car has somehow pulled off a real-life Transformer trick and turned into a 4-blade gyrocopter, called something like Mach4atron. Then someone passes you a set of antenna-studded VR goggles and your inner teenager starts cheering.
That’s what’s just happened to us, anyway. We’re here with responsible father turned drone racing pro Furadi, AKA Conrad Miller, to learn the basics of how to fly one of these things. ‘First you have to learn the aspect of flying because everything else you do, riding motorbikes or RC cars, is on a two-dimensional surface so you really have to learn the three-dimensional aspect of elevation; and then your reflexes have to be really fast,’ says Furadi.
He’s not kidding. The first time I put on the goggles and take momentary control from my tethered handler, 50ft above the field, the FPV (first person view, relayed from a camera in the drone’s nose) skews sickeningly to the left and the ground screams up at me. Apparently I have a severe case of ‘yaw twitch’. Basically the controls are so sensitive that any slight input has an instant and exhilarating effect on the drone, which slices through the air like a hornet that has just failed an anger management course. It’s fast.
‘I have just always been into racing,’ says Furadi, who was big in motorcycling and a Moto GP fan before he discovered drone racing in 2014, and has gone on to race for Thrust UAV. ‘I was addicted to the sensation of controlling speed; not just going fast, but controlling speed in the mountains and on track days, and that transfers directly over to drone racing,’ he says.
‘It’s like a flow state, when you’re in the zone; that feeling is addictive. I’m in the zone every single time I race drones – it’s like, euphoria. It’s the same kind of buzz as motorcycling – it got to the point where I still had the bike and I was drone racing, so I was riding my bike and thinking to myself: “This is dumb, I could be feeding the same addiction sitting in a chair somewhere,” so I eventually just sold the bike because it wasn’t fun anymore.’
Back in the skies, I’m finally getting the hang of flying in a straight line without threatening parked cars, but turning? Yeah, well that happens so fast I having trouble processing it. Having one stick control for power up, power down, and left/right yaw, and another for forwards and backwards, is baking my brain. It really is like flying because your physical inputs are interacting in such a direct way with the craft and also with those pesky rules of physics.
That said, the drones are so fast and so manoeuvrable that my eyeballs feel like they’re pulling 12G. I’m so wrapped that by the time I take the goggles off my hands are shaking, and I feel like I’ve just been doused in adrenaline. For Furadi, racing drones feels the same way. ‘It’s traumatic. My heart rate goes through the roof, my adrenaline dumps, it’s very traumatic! Haha! You’ll see people if they crash out of a race, they’ll take their goggles off and they can’t even breathe.’
Of course, humans have a track record of paying to be scared, so it won’t surprise you to hear that flying drones really is kind of addictive. And before you risk a real-life drone-face interface, you can get to grips with an online simulator and videogame controller… But real life is more fun, so Furadi gave RISING his top tips to become a Top Gun Drone Pilot:
1. Don’t Be ‘All The Gear, No Idea’ Bro
‘Don’t start out with pro equipment – you might see that your favourite drone racer is racing this build with this battery, that’s way too hard when you are starting out. It’s like starting on a 1000cc bike – it’s too much. So start on an average build with a smaller three-cell battery. It’s OK to go slow starting out, you have to learn.’
2. Slow Is Smooth And Smooth Is Fast
‘Always work on being smooth – because with drones everything happens so quick and you have to react so fast. If you focus on being smooth, even if you have to slow down, then you will end up going faster. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.’
‘I get to the point where I’m getting really frustrated, then I back it down a notch and just keep practising’
3. Watch Out For Real-World Physics – Like Drift
‘One rookie error is going straight up as soon as you take off – straight up to 100ft. And putting too much power into turns. New pilots tend to counteract the drift that you get as you turn, by putting on the power, which you need to do but along with other stuff at the same time. So you get drones climbing out of turns.’
4. Don’t Get Stuck On Speed Bumps
‘When you start to become efficient, eventually you’re going to hit a wall where you are not progressing as fast. So what I do is I go out and practice with a set amount of batteries, and I get to the point where I’m getting really frustrated. And then I kind of back it down a notch and just keep practising. And that’s when I start to break over that barrier. Keep going, turn it down a notch and just keep going. Just push through, that’s really the only way to progress.’
‘Drone racing relies on fine motor skills, and adrenaline screws your fine motor skills’
5. Keep A Lid On Your Adrenaline
‘The biggest enemy for a racer in an actual race is nerves. So when you go to your first race, it’s terrifying. And it’s so bad because drone racing relies on fine motor skills, and adrenaline screws your fine motor skills – you’re shaking, and you’re shaking on the sticks as you try to fly. So the best thing you can do is find your own way to try to keep calm, deep breaths perhaps – I’ll let you know my way when I find out! Two and a half years later and I still get nervous! Whoever can control their nerves usually wins.’
6. Set The Parameters To Suit You
‘Equipment isn’t really important until you get really proficient. But for settings it helps – we have this thing called rates and if you’re moving the sticks if you have higher rates, then the quad reacts really fast, so for racing it’s really good to have lower rates, because it makes everything more stable.’
7. Don’t Throw It Away At The Finish
‘If you are the last man standing, that should be easy because you just have to finish but that can be more nerve racking, because you just have to finish! It’s the same as before, focus on some breathing exercises and concentrate on finishing.’
8. Remember, It’s All About The Fun
‘It’s a sport that anyone can get into. And it’s, like, drastically changed my life. Three years ago I was doing data entry at a big tech company and now I’m a well known drone racer, it’s just insane! I’m just along for the ride – I love competing, it’s fun, it’s exhilarating and I just take each day as it comes. It’s one of those things, like “what the hell just happened” so you’ve just kind of got to roll with it. Because three years ago it wasn’t even a thing!’
WHAT NEXT? Watch Furadi’s high-speed lines with the Thrust UAV Riot...