Apart from aerial photography, what else can you do with a quadcopter (or multicopter in general)? Racing! Drone racing is quickly becoming a popular sport around the world, you cannot miss it if you are into flying multirotors or FPV.
Article first created in Sep 2015, last updated in Dec 2016.
It doesn’t matter if you are piloting or just watching the race, anyone who takes it seriously doesn’t look at the drone from a distance, but instead they put on video goggles or use monitors to watch from the aircraft’s perspective.
Flying a quadcopter is the most surreal experience I ever had. You can go anywhere in 3D space, what you can do is totally up to your imagination.
Some say drone racing is a bit like a video games, apart from it’s real. In a game you can just restart after a crash, but in the real world if you crash you will have to do the ‘walk of shame’ and pick it up yourself. If anything is damaged you need to repair it. You can choose your own parts, upgrade your drone to fly faster, tune it like on a racing car so it flies better. Everything is highly customizeable.
In this guide, we’ll cover the following topics:
- History of Drone Racing
- Cost? To Build or Buy?
- Parts and Equipment
- Getting Started with Flying
- Race Types and Setting up Racing Course
- Video Frequency Management
This guide is still working in progress and will be updated regularly. If there is any questions and suggestions please let me know in the comment below.
You might also be interested in learning how to fly FPV on Multicopters. Top picture is taken by Michal Blumkowski from Multicopter International Group.
History of Drone Racing
The explosion of this racing aspect of the hobby has to go back to the development of “mini quad”. Before that people were mainly flying larger 450mm sized quadcopters and hexecopters.
The 450 quadcopters are heavier, and they lack the agility and durability (in crashes) compared to a racing smaller 250mm size mini quad. Mini quad are made for crashing, so even when you crash you can usually just pick it up and fly again within seconds. This gives pilots the confidence, and allows them to fly faster, through smaller gaps, and pushing their limits to the next level.
The numbers 250, 450 etc, is the diagonal motor to motor distance, basically that indicates the size of the multicopter.
Since then, we’ve seen huge progress in the horse power of these mini quad, increasing propeller sizes, higher LiPo battery voltage, larger motors… Some insane power to weight ratios of over 10:1 is becoming possible, turning these little toys into insane rockets, which are capable of reaching 80 miles/hour (~125Km/hr).
How Much does it cost?
I get asked this question all the time when I am flying in the park: How much does it cost to build a drone?
Just like anything else, it largely depends on your choice of components. Just to give you a rough idea, a FPV racing drone (mini quad) can cost somewhere between $150 to $500 or more. That is just the quadcopter itself and does not include any accessories such as spare batteries, FPV Goggles, Radio Transmitter, building tools etc. Basic accessories can cost you another $150 to $500. So you can probably spend as little as $300 to get started, but expect more than that if you are seriously hooked. :D
To build or to buy
If building a quadcopter from scratch sounds too challenging, you can consider a RTF or ARTF kit such as the EMAX NightHawk Pro 280 and ImmersionRC Vortex. These are pre-built quadcopters and you don’t get to choose what parts you want. Alternatively you can also get someone with experience to advise on which one you should buy, or help you build one. Our IntoFPV forum is a great place for that.
The pre-built quadcopter option might sound easy. but I would definitely recommend building your own customized quadcopter! Building it is part of the fun, and the skills and knowledge you learn along the way, will enable you to repair and upgrade by yourself.
Parts and Equipment
To learn more about the construction and components of a mini quad (or multicopter in general), I strongly recommend reading the following posts first.
You will also begin to see more and more acronyms, check here for glossary.
An FPV racing quadcopter is made up of the following parts:
- Radio transmitter (TX) and receiver (RX)
- Quadcopter Frame
- 4 Motors (how to choose motor/propellers)
- 4 Props (Propellers)
- 4 ESCs (Electronics Speed Controller, how to choose ESC)
- FC (Flight Controller – for a list of flight controllers)
- LiPo Battery
- FPV Camera (how to choose camera)
- FPV OSD (how to choose osd guide)
- Video Transmitter (VTX) and Receiver (VRX)
- FPV Goggles or Monitor (how to choose FPV goggles)
- Optional: HD Recording Camera, such as Xiaomi Yi, GoPro, Runcam HD, or Mobius
Other Gear and Accessories
- LiPo Charger (how to choose LiPo charger)
- Soldering Iron
One important advice, buy spare! Especially props (propellers). Crashing is inevitable so you will break quite a few props. It also doesn’t hurt to have spare batteries, motors and ESCs if you want to avoid waiting around for replacement parts.
Getting Started with Flying
There are more than one way to learn how to fly a drone. The 3 common ways are:
- Build/Buy a full size quad and Learn how to fly
- Learn on Drone FPV simulators
- Learn on small, toy grade micro quadcopters
I would probably avoid the first way at all cost. Not only it’s dangerous, it’s also expensive if you crash and break the parts. Unless you have friends that can guide you through the building and flying, then it would probably save you money and time and much safer.
If you are getting into this on your own, I think it’s best to start with FPV simulators, also with practices on a micro quadcopter. Simulators I’ve used and would recommend right now are Liftoff and FPV FreeRider. Check out this post about some of the FPV simulators I’ve tried..
For choices of micro quadcopter, I would recommend getting one that allow you to install Cleanflight or Betaflight, so you can get some experience on configuring the software (which you will also use on a full size drone later on). I think right now, the Eachine E010 with Betaflight compatible FC is my favorite setup for beginners.
Steve (BigglesFPV) also wrote a few excellent articles about getting into FPV on IntoFPV, so check it out :)
Race Types and Places
Races can take place anywhere: warehouse, parking lot, in the forest, or simply on an open field with obstacles. Just like any other types of racing, the goal is to go through the course without crashing.
There are three main types of drone racing.
Two or more multicopters fly through a course at the same time. Pilots are ranked in the order they cross the finish line. If you crash then you are out; if you miss a gate you’ll need to go back and pass it. Normally the number of racers is limited by the video interference, 8 racers are normally the most we can handle in a single run.
A test of a multicopter’s speed through a course, in which the finishing time is recorded. Good thing about this type of race is that, pilot does not get affected by video signal interference as there is only 1 quad flying at a time.
Lastly there is the free style competition. It’s a bit like dancing, where the contestant has to perform all sorts of crazy acrobatic moves to impress the judges.
Next we will talk about setting up a racing course.
Setting up a Track / Racing Course
Once your have built your quad, and you found a local group to fly with, it’s time to set up a racing track.
When setting up a circuit, remember there is no set course or limit! apart from the usual air gates and flags, incorporate other objects around you into your racing tracks too, such as trees and bushes, it will make your flights a lot more dynamic and feels more 3D.
Air gates can be expensive, but you can always DIY and make your own from camping posts, pool noodles, cardboard, hula hoops, or whatever you have on hand.
I reviewed the FPVModel Race gate, they are pretty good for casual practice.
Here is a video of me racing with friends (not really racing, more like following :) )
Here is a time trial race I went to (race footage starts after 2:30).
Here is some footage of me flying through a circuit.
Video Frequency Management
As you arrive at the FPV site, first thing you need to do is to work out who is using which video transmitter channel.
DO NOT power on your quad before you get your video channel confirmed, especially when there are other people flying!
When people are on the same channel, or too close to each other with their frequency, you could knock out the other guy’s video, or give him lots of interference and cause him to crash if he’s already in the air. Always warn other pilots before you power on your quad in case of video interference (unless you really hate that person and do it on purpose LOL).
Alternatively you can switch on your video receiver first, and check which channels are being used before you switch on your video transmitter.
With proper equipment and frequency management max 8 people can fly at the same time, but normally 4 is more common for an interference free race.
In my local flying group, we could have 3 to 4 people flying at the same time at most, because we are all on the ImmersionRC Frequency band. But by incorporating more frequency bands into a race we can allow more people race at the same time. There are now 5 bands of total 40 channels available for 5.8Ghz FPV (the traditional A B E F bands, and the newer Raceband).
It’s possible to fit more people in a race, by utilizing more frequency bands and adding more frequency separation. But remember it’s the frequency separation you need to make sure is wide enough, and not affected by frequency harmonics (more on that topics in future).
Use low power video transmitter! 200mW is more favorable than 600mW in a race event. 600mW is too powerful and will cause lots of interference for other people.
If you crash, unplug your lipo as soon as you pick it up. If you walk back to your seat with the quad powered on, it might affect your buddy’s video signal if they are still flying (because your transmitter is now closer to your friend’s receiver than their quads).
I have been hearing some companies are developing VTX that shuts down automatically when crashed, which will minimize the interference to other pilots. That would be a great feature!
Left hand / Right Hand Circular Polarized Antenna
To further reduce interference, consider using both left hand and right hand circular polarized antenna in your racers. Because left hand antenna has a significant signal reduction to right hand ones, vice versa. So person on ch1 can use right hand antenna, ch3 can use left hand, ch5 can use right hand, etc… See here for a more detail info on this.
Safety first. Always remember that these racing mini quads are FAST ! They can cause some nasty injuries to people and animals. We hate seeing people ignoring safety rules, because it’s not only affecting yourself and the victim, but also the reputation of this hobby.
- Check your local rules and regulations about FPV, RC and Model Flying
- Buy Insurance!
- Use spotter!
- Choose your flying location sensibly, do not fly at places with too many people walking by
- Never fly too close to or above people or animals
- Disconnect battery immediately after picking up the quad
- Do not try to catch a multicopter in mid-air
- Never use LiPo with damaged cell. Dispose of it safely and properly
Please also read about this article that explains FPV safety in a bit more detail.
Best Configuration for Drone Racing – Quadcopter or Hexacopter or Tricopter?
Someone asked this question on Facebook. For me, I prefer quadcopter for racing, especially mini quad.
Quads are easier to build and maintain. Although with the same motor/props/battery, hexacopter can have higher top speed, but every time you crash you have a bigger chance of damaging propellers, motors and arms.
Quad is also more efficient than hex in my opinion. But of course, it’s also a personal preference, hexacopter definitely looks cool in the air.
Tricopter is pretty energy efficient, and has better yaw authority than quadcopters. But the yaw servo can be damaged quite easily in crashes, and i just don’t think they are as fast as a quadcopter (for a similar setup).
Check out this post about the different multirotor configurations.
Tips about Mini Quad Racing
Winning a race, is not all about speed. The key is to stay in the air! Sometimes it’s better to go slow and steady, rather than going too fast and getting out of control. I have seen so many times, the fastest pilots get defeated by the slower ones, because they crashed during the race although they have the best lap times.
Also make sure you bring a lot of spare propellers, crashes are inevitable. When you are practicing, just be prepared to crash, props and parts can get damaged and it’s completely normal. You will start pushing your limits and improve your skills quicker once you stop worrying!