20 Sep 2018

All the Gear: What a Drone-Racing Pilot Needs

Drone racing is booming – and with the first FAI Drone Racing World Championships on the horizon, we got the lowdown on just what a top-level drone-racing pilot needs.

Pilot: Obviously the first thing is the pilot. A junior is under 18. You will see they all wear first person view (FPV) goggles, and use a radio control to fly their drone. Some like to stand, some like to sit: at a big drone race you’ll see both.

Competition Crew: Pilots can’t race on their own. The crew of people involved in a competition includes Spotters, Judges and Starters. A Spotter stands behind a pilot and acts as their eyes outside the goggles. Pilots don't have a rear-view mirror, so they have an important role. Judges – there is one per pilot – checks the video feed of the pilot. If a pilot misses a gate the judge calls out the pilot's number and they have to go around again. The Starter has a safety role and runs the race.

Timing and scoring system: The timing system records how many laps each drone has done, when they cross the line and what order they cross in. There are different systems in use – infrared and a system which records the power-signal from the drone as it passes. The scoring system at the FAI Drone Racing World Championships in China will be supplied by FAI Global Technical Partner Noosphere, and will use their eNavigator system for real-time scoring both on big screens in the stadium and online.

The Drone: We all know drones these days. You get mini drones, really small ones, you get toy drones which are for use inside, then the camera drones, which can be quite expensive, and then you get racing drones. You can buy a racing drone kit, but most people buy the frame, and all the electronics to go into it separately. 

It's like Lego with soldering – it looks complicated but it is still plug-and-play. You buy the frame, motors, props, camera and build them. It's about $200-300 to put together a racing drone. It's not too expensive, but if you crash you will most likely break a propeller or a motor. When you come to a big competition you will bring at least two full workings quads. Before the competition FAI Judges check the drones and the rules allow them to check three per pilot.

Goggles: These are what the pilot uses to see what the view of the drone as it flies. The camera goes on the front of the racing drone, real-time footage is then sent from a video transmitter to a video receiver, which then displays it on the goggles. It’s an analogue signal and is instantaneous. You will mainly see FatShark goggles on the competition pilots, although there are a couple of other brands on the market too. They cost about $350.

Radio Transmitter and Receiver: A radio transmitter (TX) allows the pilots to control the drone. The signals are received by a radio receiver (RX), which is connected to the electronic ‘brain’ of the drone, the Flight Controller (FC). Most transmitters work on a frequency of 2.4GHz. They can last a long time, so it’s worth buying a good one and getting used to it. Ergonomics, how it feels in your hands, is important. They come in 4, 6, 8 and 9 channels – for drone racing you want at last 6 channels. A decent one will cost about $200.

Batteries: Batteries, batteries, batteries! You can never have enough. Batteries last two to three minutes and you will need at least six, at about $20 each. Each race uses up a battery.

Total: Kitting out a drone racer costs about $1,000US – that’s drones, goggles, radio transmitter and spares. 

Thanks to FAI Drone Racing Judge Egon Kuster for help in researching this article

Photo: FAI / Marcus King