Wichita drone racers take to the sky with local club
The racers float at the starting line. They soar into the sky at 50 mph, then dive and bend through gates.
These racers are drones, flown by pilots on the ground wearing goggles with a live video feed.
On this humid August afternoon, the pilots are racing drones they built themselves at McAdams Park in central Wichita. The racers are part of ICT FPV (short for first-person view), a local chapter of MultiGP, the largest drone-racing league in the world.
This particular race, the first of several heats, had three drones at the start. One landed on its top early on and couldn’t take off again. The other two met a similar fate when they collided mid-air, eliciting a gasp from the pilots and spectators. The next heat saw two of three pilots take a slower approach to the race. Still, only one drone remained when the race timer ended, as the other two hit obstacles and crashed.
In this sport, spectators can watch from two perspectives: the sideline and, if they have their own goggles, the pilot’s view.
“Unlike other sports where you’re always a spectator, you can be sitting up in the stands wearing your goggles, and it’s all open frequency, so you can feel like you’re flying,” said Sean Jones, one of the drone racers.
The pilots control the aircraft through a front-facing camera with a first-person view that feels as if they are in a cockpit. Most of the drones used in these races typically fly 40-60 mph during competitions, Jones said, but they can top out at around 100 mph on a straightaway.
“These drones have an ability to move in space that nothing else does,” he said. “No bird, no plane, no helicopter. Also, you couldn’t put a pilot in one of these drones because the maneuvers, you would pull so many Gs that nobody could survive them, so it has to be an unmanned aerial vehicle.”
Race styles and courses vary, and the league holds qualifiers for a national championship.
“These are all hand-built, all customized drones, so each person has their own style,” Jones said. “Like I want mine to be as light and fast as possible. Some people like the freestyle so they’ll put GoPros on top and get their HD footage.”
The cost to start out is around $200 to $300 with a build-your-own aircraft, Jones said. They also provide additional challenges and learning opportunities, especially with learning how to fix the drones.
“To be able to get it off the ground and hover, to be able to pilot the machines (is challenging), but the biggest thing is we’re breaking stuff left and right, so then we have to learn how to solder, working with boards, integration, programming,” Jones said. “So it’s a multi-level discipline. And then people get into videography and photography.”
The local chapter includes diverse pilots of all ages, races and walks of life, Jones said.
“Fourteen-year-olds are flying with 30-, 40-, 50-year-olds,” Jones said. “It’s some of the young kids that are just destroying us because they have such good reaction time. It’s so good seeing the diversity here.”
Video game skills translate well to flying drones, he said.
“The reactionary times that it takes to play first-person shooters and racing games, it really translates,” he said. “But unlike video games, it’s reality. I haven’t touched a video game, other than my drone simulator online, since I started. It brings me outside. It gives me a different view of my environment and a new angle on life.
“That’s one of the biggest things I love about this hobby, about this sport and passion, is the different view. You might not think Wichita is beautiful until you’re 100 feet up in the air and you see all the landscape and the greens and clouds.”
More information on how to join the local chapter is available through the Facebook group ICTFPV Wichita FPV Drone Club.