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Hi-tech aerial drone racing

28 July 2014

Have you seen the Red Bull Air Races?

For anyone with an interest in aviation and/or motorsports, these races are a blast.

The best in aircraft technology, combined with the latest in communications technology has brought the races right into people's living rooms and given the world a ring-side seat to the action and excitement.

Pilots dice with death as the try to save every possible millisecond by cutting close to the pylons and pulling as many G's as possible in tight turns or pull-outs. It really is a buzz for armchair adrenaline junkies, the vast majority of who lack the skills, courage and finances to actually fly these aircraft themselves.

Sadly, for safety reasons, the events are held as time-trials, rather than having multiple aircraft battling it out, wing-tip to wing-tip (as they do in the Reno Air Races).

However, air-racing is about to get even more hi-tech, with "drone racing", perhaps coming to the skies near you!

What am I talking about? Will we see the skies filled with unmanned aircraft, armed with hellfire missiles and taking shots at each other (or insurgents in the crowd below)?

No, I'm talking about a craze that has started sweeping the world with amazing speed.

I'm talking about something called a 250 mini-quadcopter.

These tiny craft, usually built around a hi-tech carbon fibre frame, are fitted out with the latest in hi-tech electronics, video cameras, powerful electric motors and state-of-the-art lithium polymer batteries.

The result is a craft that you can hold in the palm of your hand but which is capable of the most amazing speeds and maneuverability.

I've mentioned these craft before in this column but recently I put a video up on my YouTube channel inviting people around the country who might be interested in some competitive racing to contact me -- and the results have been astounding. Not only have I had a lot of feedback from Kiwis but many, many would-be racers from all around the world have expressed a strong interest in setting up a formalised racing class.

This really could become the "Formula 1" of drone racing and right now, a *lot* of those keen to kick-start the racing are even willing to come to NZ and compete.

Of course it'll never happen in Tokoroa -- due to the problems with the SWDC, CAA and MFNZ that regular readers are all familiar with -- which is a big shame. Hell, fancy this little town being the headquarters of what I know will become a massive participant and spectator sport: Drone Racing!

This is probably the first time that a hobby activity has had the potential to break into the mainstream sporting arena and if you're wondering why, take a look at this:

I can imagine that, if promoted properly, this form of racing could become a very intense spectator sport -- with folk rolling up to races clutching their virtual-reality goggles in their hands and tuning into the video from their favourite racer's craft -- thus getting an unmatched "seat of the pants" adrenaline rush.

At our local flying site, we've already given spectators spare sets of video goggles and allowed them to "come along for the ride" -- the results, without exception, have been nothing short of a raving endorsement on every occasion. Even the 60-something woman who took a virtual ride on Sunday at the field was effusive in her comments afterwards.

Just a few years ago, this type of hi-tech racing would have been impossible -- but now, thanks to small cameras, 32-bit microcontrollers, high-power motors using neodymium magnets and advances in lithium battery technology -- it's something that is accessible to everyone.

I guess now I'll just have to find somewhere in NZ that would see an opportunity to become the drone-racing capital of the world as a positive thing. Surely there must be a town or city in this country that would welcome the inflow of world-attention and tourism that this would bring.

Of course that assumes CAA don't come down like a tonne of bricks on this hobby -- using the excuse that these craft constitute a risk to the national airspace -- because as we all know, there are a lot of Cessnas and 737s flying through those trees -- aren't there?

How many readers get as excited as me by this intense racing?

Does anyone want to drop over and take a ride as a virtual passenger in such a race?

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