This is Ratho Farm. In the middle of Tasmania, it’s about 13,000km from Silicon Valley:
Settled in 1822, it’s recently opened up its doors for a wonderfully unique farmstay experience:
It’s also home to Australia’s oldest known golf course. Among the usual obstacles, you can count fencing and livestock:
And if wild platypus, square greens and homecooked Tasmanian produce doesn’t grab you, some of the world’s best whiskies at the Nant distillery next door might:
Between the two farms, there’s a lot of machinery laying around that was once considered cutting edge:
In 1821, rare granite millstones shipped out from Wales enabled a water-driven flour mill to be built at Nant:
They were found by chance by the estate’s new owner, Keith Batt, in 2004 and are now driven again by the the only water-powered flour mill still commercially operating in Australia.
Back at Ratho, 195 years later, the latest tech was still arriving. In my bag, I had a very impressive bit of kit Panasonic had loaned me for the weekend.
And this is the new DJI Matrice:
Buy it with all the bells and whistles and you won’t get a lot of change out of $30,000.
It’s incredible, but it’s not the star of the show here.
The Matrice and its owner, Kyle Gardner at Aerial Vision Australia, are here to keep a somewhat spooky eye on things:
There’s a sense of autonomy about the Matrice, and all I could think of while watching it was:
Yes, I suffer from a light case of drone paranoia. And in the cottage next door… ye gods. Say hello to “Freedom Class”:
This year, drone racing really hit mainstream. The Drone Racing League was founded and funded by the owner of the US NFL Miami Dolphins league. And courtesy of DJI, South Korea now has a 1,395-square-metre arena for people to fly and race drones in:
Great idea, but the Freedom Team have an issue with racing tiny drones – they’re tiny. And because of that, drone racing isn’t such a great spectator sport.
So led by CEO Chris Ballard, they’ve invested a good chunk of time, money, expertise and HR into scaling up. And they’re doing it properly, starting with a great team, a national schools program and even a drone fantasy league.
All they need is the drone, and I’m here to see the inaugural flight of the V1. At dinner, I was told it could lift most of the people at the table – together.
That was about 300kg, so I assumed they were joking. Haha.
So here it is – V1, about 1.5m across. Most of the first day was spent with the drone disembowelled on the bed in Ratho’s 200-year-old Cookhouse:
The guy hovering over it is Leonard Hall, whose day job is researching wave technology with Australia’s Defence Science and Technology Organisation.
Oh, and he also designed and wrote the code for UAV platform ArduPilot, which is now onboard more than 100,000 US and Australian defence and NASA aircraft.
He’s the go-to man for when something goes wrong on those 100,000 craft. When I asked when that last happened, he said “About 2.5 seconds ago”.
Today – and tonight – it seems like he’s spending all his time screwing things together and stripping wires. The team are desperate to get V1 rolling for sunrise tomorrow.
While this weekend is a big deal in terms of getting the thing flying, it’s also a big chance to get a proof-of-concept out to the world, and potentially, a market and investors.
Paul New is CEO of software solutions provider FM Innovations. He’s taken on an executive director role at FC, and says they aren’t in any rush for a quick injection of VC cash. They’d prefer to find someone who can also guide them along the road to making Freedom Class a legitimate sport.
They’ve already got a process in place to licence pilots – because these are not your average drones. The V1 weighs 32kg.
Expect to jump through a few hoops before even thinking about piloting one in a race. And some industrial grade geofencing.
Branding? Of course:
Speaking of licensing pilots, another team member, Grantley Reed, left a 21-year career in airline operations and various risk management roles to help FC work through the details of flying these things with CASA. Surprisingly, he says CASA has been extremely flexible and willing to help draft some guidelines.
I have to admit, I was surprised that the V1 didn’t arrive at Ratho ready to fly. But Chris tells me they’re several days behind as the first carbon fibre chassis, built in Melbourne by a guy who started his career at McLaren F1, didn’t quite make it through the oven properly.
I found something else to do for the afternoon:
Then, a small disaster. As they’re shifting the assembled drone, something touches something it shouldn’t and there’s a loud pop and the dreaded “magic smoke” arises from one of the arms.
It’s the ESC – electronic speed controller. There’s one on each arm – and the team only has one spare.
So there’s no boozing on after dinner. It’s straight back to getting that ESC replaced:
In the morning I’m woken by Kyle’s Matrice. No chance of spotting a platypus today:
Leonard tells me they were up till well past 1am, and despite impressively getting back on the job by sunrise. But all the talk is about the tiny drone in Texas which set a world record overnight – 206km/h.
Obviously, it’s not consumer-friendly – that records sit at a measly 130km/h. Ish.
Chris says FC is gearing up the V1’s successor – the V2.0 – for “150-200km/h”. But right now, it’s obvious the V1 isn’t going to make the sunrise money shot. Leonard is more than happy to sacrifice pretty 4K promo footage for something that actually works.
But it is alive soon after. Haul out gives me the first proper impression of the size of this thing:
And we’re off to the testing paddock. This is Will Bignall:
He’s one of several local farmers watching on and all of them are way more familiar with the tech than I am.
Will’s been using drones on his farm for years and has partnered up with Kyle to form DroneAg. Together, they 3D map properties and show farmers how to optimise their pastures by highlighting things like better drainage options.
This is hilarious – how Tasmanian farmers keep themselves amused. Stay for the landing:
And now, the big moment arrives. First, all the Tasmanian safety measures are put in place. Barriers – check:
Expensive, cutting edge V1 drone tied down with a hay bale – check:
But first, let’s fast-forward a little to when the Bad Thing happened. Remember that ESC that blew and they only had one spare? It happened again.
When the V1 was untethered from the hay bale, Leonard gave it some juice. We were told to stand at least 30m away, with “all our RFs off”. The noise even from that far away was incredible.
The V1 rose, we all held our breath, it yawed a little and Leonard quickly brought it down. It bounced and we all held our breath.
Everything seemed okay… until five seconds later when we heard a small explosion and a brief fire flared up on one arm. More magic smoke.
The odds were terrible, but somehow one of the props managed to clip the ground just long enough to overload and blow another ESC. If you make industrial strength versions of ESCs, here’s your chance – contact Paul.
Obviously, everyone was gutted. They’d made a big effort to get here and after the build-up, to see it at full tilt would have been glorious.
But the flipside to that was, they were equally here to see it fail. That’s the nature of testing.
And they got enough flight time to put together this nice little production number which they’d been promising their followers:
The team took it on the chin, noting all that they’d achieved and how it would work to make V2.0 even better. They’re in for the long haul and even while we were at Ratho, Chris made several trips to Hobart to present to schoolkids and give several talks at the Festival of Bright Ideas.
That in itself was just as impressive as the effort they’re putting in to build the thing. The FC team are clearly just as keen to promote the sport and the technology as they are to be on top of it.
And there was just one more thing.
That first moment when they tied the V1 to a bale of hay? It wasn’t just for show.
Leonard wanted to give it a burst to get a feel for the power, without risking seeing his baby shoot off up into the stratosphere.
Here’s what happened:
If that was somewhat underwhelming, try it once more with sound:
It’s just a taste, right? But that bale is 15kg, easy – and the V1 was only just winding up.
And here’s an exclusive – the V2.0 is already in production. Here’s what it will look like in full racing stripes:
There’s clearly some ways to go, but from what I saw in Bothwell, it’s a journey well worth following. Teams of man-sized drones racing at 200km/h? I’m in.
And if the team’s estimations of 300kg payloads are even close to correct, imagine watching a struggling tourist being lifted out of the breakers at Bondi and brought to shore before the on-duty lifeguard has even hit the sand.