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Inside the underground drone racing league that's booming in Australia

Ever wondered what it’s like to be sitting in the cockpit of a tiny drone hitting 60km/h?

Something like this:

That’s the view from onboard one of dozens of drones operated by a group of racers who meet every couple of months in underground spaces along the eastern sea border of Australia.

They’re addicted to a whiteknuckle ride which awakens all your childhood dreams of being a Formula One driver. Except FPV (first person view) miniquad racing looks just as thrilling, is infinitely safer and is a lot, lot cheaper.

Welcome to Drone Club

Picture: Shannon Reddaway

The enthusiasts meet regularly in Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania, choosing abandoned warehouses and underground parking lots for several reasons, but mainly for public safety and the fact CASA’s licensing regulations don’t apply as strictly indoors.

A basic setup will get you in the cockpit at 60km/h for between $400-$500.

Picture: Shannon Reddaway

Chad Nowak is a gun pilot who’s about to head to the US to represent Australia in the sport. (More about that later.)

“By the time I joined in 2014, it was growing steadily but they were underpowered and slow,” he says. “I spent the next 12 months pushing to improve the performance to what they are capable of now. These days they are more like F1 race cars depending on how you build them – 80-100km/h is possible on faster tracks.”

However, Nowak has hit 158km/h, which he believes is the current speed record, and “would like to get to 200km/h just to prove it’s possible”.

Most of the startup cost comes for the transmitter for the goggles.

Chad Nowak, left – gun pilot. Mark Cocquio, right – ace. Picture: Shannon Reddaway

That’s usually a one-off price hit. After that, you’re only shelling out for quadcopters – although like cars in a grease monkey’s backyard, you can end up with a workshop full of them.

“I’ve got six or seven racing quads with me right now, all in various forms of airworthiness,” Nowak says.

Before we go any further, the majority of racers prefer not to use the term “drones”.

Drone.

“‘Drone’ is a bit of a buzzword with a negative connotation to it,” Nowak says. “A drone’s an unmanned aerial vehicle. Most people know them as Predator drones which spy on people and drop bombs in Afghanistan.

Miniquad.

“In the US, people think they’re going to be used to spy on them, but I guess the general public now knows them as drones, so it’s been taken out of our hands.”

Australia’s homegrown racers would be happy to claim their stake as FPV miniquad race pioneers.

Nowak said to his knowledge, “a couple of French guys” got no further than an idea before Queenslanders Scott Driessens, from Untested Prototypes, and miniquad manufacturer BlackOut began developing proper framed racing quads. (That’s a Blackout miniquad in action above.)

“That’s the birth of miniquad as far as I know,” Nowak says. “Around late 2013, people were flying much larger craft and crashing meant broken parts and lots of repairs.

“On the many worldwide forums there were many ideas on how to slim the whole design down and these two people in Brisbane started bringing all these ideas to life.”

The first official attempt at a national event takes place in California next month.

The US National Drone Racing championships will be held at the California State Fair from July 15-17. Nowak snared an invite and sponsorship from ImmersionRC to help get him there.

There’s $US10,000 up for grabs but Nowak is just buzzed to be part of the start of something big.

Picture: Shannon Reddaway

“I feel like I’m on the leading edge of a wave of what’s happening – it’s very hard to keep up and stay there but it’s certainly a fun ride,” he says.

“It’s crazy to watch how fast everything has been improving and advancing. If I fly a quad setup I was flying this time last year I wouldn’t even get into the race.”

Nowak expects more offical tournaments to start popping up within months, including the formation of an international league.

Picture: Shannon Reddaway

And he says there are several groups working to get their version of a national league up and flying. Chris Ballard runs Qarop.com out of Tasmania, where the push is gathering serious momentum.

While they may race underground, it doesn’t mean they’re “underground”.

Picture: Shannon Reddaway

“Really we are just a bunch of nerds playing with electronics in abandoned warehouses, car parks and parks,” Nowak says.

Like anything that flies (including kites and balloons), the miniquad racers have to abide by CASA’s regulations, in particular Part 101, which dictates what drone enthusiasts can and cannot do.

One of the rules states that CASA does not have jurisdiction when a model aircraft is flown indoors – with a couple of exceptions like not flying in a hazardous or dangerous way. Nowak says the groups head indoors to remove the hassle of dealing with a government organisation when doing official races. While first person view flying inside is tense, outside is a joy.

Here’s Chad practising for the nationals with a “boring raw flight”:

“I’m sure some pilots like the idea of feeling like they are rebels but the fact is there is nothing rebel about what we are doing,” Nowak says. “You don’t need a license to fly these things so long as you are not profiting for it.

“I’m sure pretty much everyone who does this would like to see it become more mainstream.”

Race organisers are still trying to get their heads around what works best for FPV miniquad fans

Ouch.

Nowak says it’s all so new, there’s still no set format for races.

“The venue needs to suit the racing and be safe,” he says. “We need to keep a safe distance from the general public for example so there is many things to consider. Big abandoned buildings and car parks work well but so do parks and such as you can use the terrain and flora to your advantage when designing the track.

“The track needs to be easy enough that people are not constantly crashing but also hard enough to challenge the pilots.

“And the racing can involve time trials or having multiple racers… you may have to gain altitude to go over some trees or through an open window. Likewise we use airgates to ensure pilots have to stay low to fly under them. There is so much scope to designing a track.”

The relationship with CASA is… tense.

Picture: Shannon Reddaway

Apart from the fact they’re trying to operate under legislation written “about 9 years before FPV technology even existed”, Nowak says Australia’s aviation regulators generally leave them alone, although they’d prefer some official black-and-white clarification so they can press on with their sport.

“Enforcing silly and tight regulation only sends everyone underground to do it anyway,” Nowak says.

“Hopefully showing the wider community what we do will change public perception and in turn change regulation to put come common sense back into things.”

Weirdly, the biggest issue is the goggles…

Picture: Shannon Reddaway

CASA believes it’s not legal to fly miniquads outside using goggles.

“They have no idea how we use them and have made no effort to talk to us about it,” Nowak says. “We have even spent some time trying to communicate with them and have been ignored, although we hope that will change.”

The biggest problem they face is hitting someone with their 500g drones. If it did happen, “they would be very unlucky to be seriously injured” but they ensure no flying happens if members of the public gets too close. “Safety is a priority,” Nowak says.

… and the fact that people just generally seem to be wary of drones

Picture: Shannon Reddaway

“These things weigh around 500g, make a noticeable whine when flying so we can’t sneak up on people and they use fish eye lens so everything looks further away,” Nowak says. “You can’t see any detail at a distance, so they are not suited in any way to getting up to no good.

“I liken the stigma attached to drones much like the fear of camera phones when they first came out last decade. At first everyone was worried about privacy issues but these days everyone has got one and people have forgotten about something that was never an issue in the first place.

“I believe drones will be the same.”

Cops… not so much

Everyone has to have a hobby. Picture: Shannon Reddaway

Nowak says the racers regularly get approached by the police and security guards.

“But we’ve never had a problem with them,” he says. “Once we give them a set of goggles to try on they are our best friend and have a million questions about our toys.

“Flying through goggles is a very immersive experience – you can also use a screen but it is not nearly the same feeling. The actual feeling of being in a race is no different to what a racing car driver feels during their race.

“I think we’ve been responsible in getting a few police officers hooked on FPV mini quads in the past 12 months.

Nowak will compete in the US Nationals from July 15-17. Here’s some footage from a meet in a carpark six months ago, using a Blackout miniquad:

And here’s a recent report from ABC’s Lateline on a recent meeting in Melbourne:

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