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Kiwi pilot breaks down FPV racing: “Like I’ve left my own body to become the drone.”

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To kick off what we hope will be more regular FPV content – we’re profiling a competitive drone racer from New Zealand to learn more about what it takes to get into the sport and how it feels to fly from a drone’s perspective.

FPV racing is an incredible spectacle to behold: dozens of tiny drones buzzing past making tight turns, flips and dashing high and low as they tear their way through obstacle courses.

For those not in the know, FPV stands for First-person view. Pilots strap expensive headsets (similar to VR goggles) to their face and control their craft via controller, intently watching the course whizz by from the perspective of their drone’s cameras. The competitors are stationary but intensely focused. They grip their controllers and try to edge their crafts around every corner just a fraction tighter: this is a sport of inches.

Jaxon 0ff in his own world while in drone mode.

Jaxon Paraki-Webber is a 22-year-old New Zealand-based FPV drone racer. He got into this emerging sport back in 2016 after catching some videos on YouTube and Facebook and then seeing an ad for a local drone racing group, Ace Company Drones, pop up on his FB profile.

He competed in his first beginner’s race last April and in a sign of things to come, came first. From there on out he was hooked, quickly shifting up to the advanced racing class. He has since competed in more than 30 races and has always finished in the top five.

He’ll soon be competing in New Zealand nationals (his seventh time). In New Zealand, drone racing is very much in its infancy but in the US, there are leagues across the nation and some big prize money at stake.

Aside from racing, Jaxon works with two Kiwi drone companies and as an arborist.

Before the interview, a few basics out of the way

Racing drones vs regular drones

Racing drones are tiny and made of lightweight material. While many consumer drones may weigh more than a kilo (2.2 pounds), some racing drones weigh as little as 285 grams (10 ounces). Racing drones emphasize speed, so their cameras are focused on delivering quick potentially lower-quality video, rather than the slow yet incredibly detailed footage coming from the likes of the Mavic Air. Racing drones expend with unnecessary excesses and are designed with just one goal in mind: be fast.

How does drone racing work – what are the rules?

Pilots guide their drones around a set circuit, competing against four to eight people at time. The fastest finisher is the victor. Depending on where you race – there are quite a few rules to adhere to. Rules govern aspects like the size of the craft, what type of video cameras are permissible and regulate the controller and goggles you can wear too.

Different classes of competition

In MultiGP races in the US there is an Open Class and Spec Class. Open class is basically a “build a drone with whatever parts you like and race it” and Spec Class is limited to approved components. These drones can still vary very differently from one another, but they all use gear that more or less matches the other drones in the class. In New Zealand we only run open class but we are restricted to five inch propellers.

Drone pilots racing in the Netherlands

Can racing drones give you motion sickness? 

Absolutely. Some people will find the rapid motion of the viewfinder difficult to adjust to but after an initial period of settling in, most people’s stomachs will settle down and they’ll find the experience exhilarating.

INTERVIEW

WetalkUAV: What sort of person enjoys FPV racing?

Jaxon: People who get into drone racers are usually gamers or people who have come from motorsport or other extreme sports. They get the adrenaline from going fast but only break their drone when they crash, not their bodies.

What sort of equipment did you start out with? Is it expensive to set yourself up?

I got the basic beginner setup really. A lot of the gear that you find in “beginner race drones” is the same as a higher end ones. I started with a cheap set of FPV goggles and a fairly cheap controller. However, I would definitely recommend starting with a slightly more expensive controller. Once you get that – it’s with you for life. You’ll save money in a way, because you’ll save the $100 you would spend on the cheaper one by going straight for the $200 one.

Jaxon estimates a minimum startup cost for decent gear to be around $1000 NZD ($700 USD): “That will get you a decent racing drone, decent controller (I recommend the Frsky Taranis Qx7), goggles that do the job, some batteries, a decent charger, and some tools too.”

“You need a soldering iron 100%, hex drivers, socket drivers, side cutter pliers, needle nose pliers, tweezers for holding wire when soldering because it can be fiddly, and they get HOT!”

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