FOCUS: Drone racing more than a hobby for many Surrey enthusiasts

Organizers of the new ‘Winter Indoor Series’ are not only planning future drone races, they’re rounding up fans and sponsors

Steve Palmer watches a drone as it flies in the pit area at the Cloverdale Agriplex.

Outside, the wind blew and the raindrops plummeted, hitting the pavement with an audible smack. Inside, the drones – or at least quite a few of them, much to the chagrin of their owners – did much the same thing.

Smack!

The occasion was the inaugural event in the first “Winter Indoor Series,” an indoor drone racing challenge concocted by the newly formed West Coast Drone Racing League. Its intention? To give drone racing pilots a dry, warm place to ply their craft during the winter.

Drone racing, you see, is becoming a pretty big deal – big enough that $1 million was up for grabs last March at the 2016 Drone Grand Prix, held in Dubai. Proving, of course, that drones are good for more than zipping around airports and irking air traffic controllers.

And on a recent Sunday at Cloverdale Agriplex, some of the best regional built-for-speed drones were on display. These are fast, highly maneuverable laptop-sized machines just big enough to carry their primary cargo – battery packs, tiny motors and itsy-bitsy cameras.

The latter is not merely for uploading videos to YouTube. Drone pilots, it turns out, do their thing from a first-person perspective, watching, in real time, the image transmitted from their on-board camera to a pair of highly sophisticated goggles.

And that’s what makes drone racing so cool. It’s like you’re playing a video game, except you’re playing with real machines in the real world. With the very real possibility of real crashes.

STORY CONTINUES BELOW

On Nov. 27, the Agriplex was set up for aerial combat. On the floor, a wide variety of hoops, obstacles and markers made up the course. Surrounding much of the floor was ground-to-ceiling netting designed to keep wayward drones from crashing into innocent humans.

In the northeast corner of the building was a pit area of sorts, where owners and pilots sat at tables, overflowing with tools and spare parts and meters, and tweaked their machines to perfection. This was where the magic happened.

Adjacent to the pit area was a row of chairs – the spot where pilots would sit during races, manipulate their RC flight controllers, wear their goggles and try their best to get through the preliminaries and qualifiers and on to the finals in the late afternoon.

Caleb Wilson, 25, was one of those pilots. And he had a pretty good day. Granted, he wasn’t quite on par with the veterans and the pros who’d compete later in the day’s “A” final, but merely making the “B” final was an accomplishment in itself.

And that’s when it all began to unravel.

Minutes before the “B” final began, Wilson lost his video feed. He couldn’t see in his goggles what the camera in his drone was filming.

Luckily, the drone racing fraternity is a friendly one, and Wilson was granted a few extra minutes to get his act together. But it was only at the last moment that he discovered the problem – a loose cable – and patched up what he thought was a workable solution.

Inevitably, it wasn’t quite so workable. He had trouble throughout the race and ultimately ended it in a way that elicited oohs and aahs and applause from spectators and competitors alike.

He crashed – a few times.

But where Wilson, a Victoria native, ended his day violently, Surrey’s Patrick Laing (pictured) ended his victorious.

Running in the very same “B” final, Laing looked confident and calm throughout. It was no coincidence that his flight pattern looked just as confident and calm as he efficiently navigated the course and won the race.

“That’s the trick at this speed,” he said afterward. “You have to keep it smooth and hold to that line as close as you can. You don’t want to waver. Just keep smooth and out of the obstacles.”

Not surprisingly, there was far less carnage in the day’s closer, the “A” final. Here, the gear was mostly top-notch, the flying slicker.

Involved in the “A” final was Vancouver’s Andrew Meyer, and he, along with fellow attendees Paul Baur and Eric Milewsk, belong to a very select club. They’re members of Team Canada FPV (First Person View).

Just back from Hawaii, where they and the rest of their Team Canada mates mixed it up with the planet’s best at the 2016 World Drone Racing Championships, the trio came to Surrey because, Meyer said, “We love racing.”

“Anything local, we’ll go to it. This is the first major big event we’ve seen on the West Coast. This is the first one that’s been put together well enough.”

Meyer, originally from Port Alberni, has five years experience in the drone racing world.

“We pick the components, we custom solder, we inspect everything. This guy here,” he said, pointing to the drone he piloted in the final, “is probably $500 Canadian.”

Event organizer Ryan Stephan, a pilot himself, liked much of what he saw at the Agriplex but knows it could – and likely must – be so much more.

For one thing, the stands were mostly empty. Though he realizes that drone racing is a new sport just getting a footing, Stephan wants to “pack the place next time” and is considering drop-in admission fees to do it.

He’s also on the lookout for increased sponsorship. He credits current sponsors such as New Westminster’s drone-centric SN Hobbies (which donated $2,000-plus in prizes) and Ontario’s Rotorquest for jumping aboard quickly, but he needs more.

Stephan talks about the man hours (600-plus) and costs (facility rental, huge swaths of protective netting, legal and insurance fees, promotional material, amongst multiple other expenses), and admits they barely broke even when done.

Nonetheless, future events are planned – a “fun fly” this weekend and another day of racing on Feb. 5. Interested parties – competitors, fans and potential sponsors – are encouraged to visit Westcoastdroneracingleague.com, for more info or to get in touch.

Gordgoble@gmail.com

 

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