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News & Notes

A Beginner's Guide to Drone Racing

Tips from a pro on everything you need to start racing drones

April 18, 2017

Know your acronyms
  • BNF: bind-and-fly
  • FPV: first-person view
  • RTF: ready-to-fly
  • VTX: video transmitter
All you need to get into FPV drone racing is the right drone, goggles, transmitter, batteries, and charger. Sound overwhelming? It’s not. Let’s pick your drone first, ‘cause that’s always the most fun.

Off-the-shelf airframes

The biggest little thing to hit the FPV market is the Tiny Whoop — a modified Blade Inductrix ducted-fan quadcopter. Popularized by FPV racer Jesse Perkins and members of Team Big Whoop, the little quad demonstrates the fun and versatility of a micro racer. To create the Tiny Whoop, the 3.3-inch-long Inductrix frame is retrofitted with a micro FPV camera and video transmitter attached to the body via a 3D-printed mount.

Overall, the FPV community is in love with the Tiny Whoop’s small size — and simply how much fun it is to fly. Not to mention that the Tiny Whoop is incredibly beginner-friendly: replacing components requires no soldering, parts are relatively cheap, and the drone is light and fairly durable.

High demand cleared out many retailers’ stock of Blade Inductrix components. A growing aftermarket community has sprung up in the Tiny Whoop’s wake, with new flight controllers, motors, frames, and accessories — no two of these aircraft look alike. Tiny Whoop has become a racing class of its own, catering specifically to Tiny Whoop pilots.
Zoe’s Tiny Whoop waits for its batteries to charge before heading out to race. She keeps her batteries sorted in glasses marked “used” and “charged."
But there are other options: For $200, you can get an RTF Blade Inductrix FPV that includes an FPV screen, transmitter, micro-FPV drone with batteries, and charger — all you need to fly. To jump right into the big leagues, you’ll want to look into getting a 250mm-class, fully assembled racing drone — plus the necessary equipment to fly.

The most popular 250mm option on the market right now is the Blade Vortex Pro ($499.99). It comes as a BNF airframe, which allows you to use your own transmitter and goggles, so long as they’re Spektrum DSMX compatible. Fairly durable and easy enough to repair, it has become the go-to choice for many novice racers — but it ships with a VTX that is not allowed at most races.

The Team BlackSheep Vendetta ($499.95) is another solid option, and its power-selectable VTX makes it race-friendly. The Vendetta requires less tuning out of the box, and with easily swappable motor and arm components (no need for solder!), it is also a little easier to work with after crashes.

All three quads make great options, and will require you to buy your own transmitter and goggles — unless you get them bundled at the retailer. The Inductrix FPV from Horizon Hobby is the only complete RTF kit right now, which requires an attachment for the included FPV screen that turns it into goggles.
Although it may be daunting at first, building your quad from the workbench up will give you the experience you need to troubleshoot problems and repair damage after crashes.
Build it yourself, repair it yourself

Despite the fact that prebuilt drones can make good introductory options, I think it’s best to build your own FPV quad. With a bit of research and time, you can assemble a racing setup for almost half the cost of an RTF aircraft. Myriad online tutorials and YouTube videos ensure you’ll never be short on information. If you’re having difficulties finding what you need, I suggest visiting forums like RCGroups and FPVLAB for community support and information.

Drone racing results in crashes, which means repairs. So be prepared to be your own pit crew when entering into this sport. Building a rig from scratch may be daunting, scary, or anxiety headache-inducing at the beginning, but the process gives you the tools and knowledge necessary to repair your quad when it breaks. (Accept these facts: You will crash. Your quad will break. It will happen. Often.) Having an RTF kit is nice, but when you crash, it may take you more time or money to repair it.

Regardless of whether you buy an RTF quad or build it yourself, I recommend starting small with an indoor flyer like the Tiny Whoop. It’s fun to fly and easy to repair — as a beginner pilot without tech experience, you’ll get more enjoyment and master flying faster going this route.
Behind the goggles

The most important (and exhilarating) part of flying FPV is being able to see what your drone sees. For this, you’ll need a set of goggles or a monitor.

There are many different brands, with an array of optics that are not all equal. Optics fall into two general categories: The first uses micro displays and is
generally very sleek and lightweight. Each eye is presented with its own image, requiring two displays per pair. Micro displays also use custom lenses to focus your eyes, and the optics can vary widely between goggles. In my experience, the FatShark Dominator V3 goggles ($350) work well for most people.

The second category of headsets is a little more crude and tends to be much cheaper. They use a single traditional LCD screen with a Fresnel lens to focus the image in closer to the user’s eyes. These sort of goggles works well if you wear glasses, allowing you to fit them inside and use the headset normally. Some popular options are the Quanum V2 ($66), the Headplay HD ($250), and the Eachine EV800 ($80).

If you know someone who uses an FPV headset, ask to test it out before you buy your own — what works for another person’s eyes may not be as comfortable for yours.
Bet you can’t guess who those FatShark HD V2 goggles belong to. Parked on the right is one of Zoe’s freestyle quads, custom-built on a BULLIT Drones Xcaliber airframe.
Control the drone, be the drone

To control your drone, you need a transmitter — more commonly known as a controller. Your controller will become your companion and, like your goggles, is one of the main monetary investments required when getting into FPV racing. Potentially, you’ll use it for years to come, with many different machines.

Spektrum, JR, Futaba, Tactic, FrSky — there are many transmitter makes and models to choose from. I use a FrSky Taranis X9D Plus ($240), which has become commonplace in drone racing for its affordable price, variety of features, and its use of the flexible open-source OpenTX firmware.

Another great option is the Spektrum DX9 ($450), which has a higher-quality feel and is easy to use with the many BNF airframes from Horizon Hobby. Team BlackSheep also developed a controller specifically for FPV racing, the TBS Tango ($249.95). The design looks a lot like a video-game console controller with a built-in video screen. It’s compatible with just about any R/C receiver on the market, including FrSky, Spektrum, and Futaba.

At a cost of $200-600, transmitters can be quite an investment — especially considering you can build your racing drone for the same price. But it’s worth the cash to have a transmitter you’re happy with. Both the transmitter and FPV goggles tend to hold decent resale value for up to one year — so if you decide your gear isn’t exactly what you want, you can get back some of your hard-earned dough.
Battery breakdown

Choosing the right battery largely depends on your quad and flying style. If you’re just starting out with an RTF kit, follow the recommended specs. If you want to go deep, use this equation to find the perfect battery:

Capacity (Ah) x Discharge Rate (C) = Maximum Continuous Amp Draw (Amps)

From thrust tests online, I know my MT-1806 motors pull 8A using 5x3 props and a 3-cell LiPo battery. I use four motors, so I need a battery that can handle 32A continuous draw.

If I have a 3S 1,800mAh 30C LiPo battery, that means it is a 3-cell, 1,800 milliamp-hour lithium-polymer battery with a 30 continuous discharge rate. Convert 1,800mAh to 1.8Ah (just move the decimal point three places to the left), and multiply it by 30. In this case, I get a discharge current of 54A, more than enough to cover the draw of all four motors on my quad.
Hidden costs

Some of the most overlooked costs of entering the FPV racing hobby are batteries, a good charger, and propellers. Batteries in this hobby are a consumable; depending on use, they may last more or less than a year (or a season) of flying. But if you take care of them and cycle them infrequently, they can last two or three years — sometimes even longer.

Most racers have about 10 batteries on hand to hot-swap during a race. Batteries for a racing quad can cost between $20 and $60 apiece depending on number of cells, mAh, and C rating — the dollars start to add up pretty quick.

Batteries for non-racing drones like the Tiny Whoop are cheaper, but tend to last only a couple of months of average use — you’ll need to replace them much more frequently.

Propellers are another recurring expense. As you crash, you’ll break props. I’ve seen racers break $40 worth of props over a weekend of racing, so buy some spares to keep on hand. While it happens less frequently, a crash can also toast a motor, so buy a couple that match the ones you already have on your quad.

Important: The cost of repairs adds up quickly, so be prepared for the expense.
You’re gonna crash, so you should get used to the idea and the feel. This shattered racer lived a good life, and now rests in the boneyard at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.
Practice. Practice. Practice.

Once you have all the gear, you need a place to practice. If you opt for something small like the Tiny Whoop, you can fly just about anywhere ― indoors and out. When flying larger racing setups, you’ll need to find an open field for your first flights, slowly graduating to flying around trees and other obstacles. Early on, flying over an empty field with a single tree makes for great skill building.

If you’re tentative about flying, consider using a flight simulator. Simulators allow you to use a transmitter with your computer and get to know the control basics without the potential of leaving behind a pile of rubble. As your skills grow, you can practice new moves on the simulator before taking to the air.

There are many simulators available, and all of them will teach you the basics if you’ve never flown before. One option is the free HOTPROPS, which is regarded by many to be the best freestyle simulator on the market, followed by FPV Event (about $60), which has the most realistic physics for racing. One of my personal favorites is FPV Freerider ($5).
FPV Racing 101

Attend drone races. Races are scheduled practically every weekend, and all you need to do to find them in your area is search meetup.com or multigp.com. If there isn’t a race or group of racers in your area, you can start a group and begin flying together. Look into joining or starting a MultiGP racing chapter. With chapters all over the world, it is the largest dedicated drone racing community by far.

Keep in mind the basic etiquette of flying with others when going to events. Most importantly, be sure to check that your video channel is clear before powering up. Powering up your video transmitter on the same channel as someone else can cause their FPV transmission to go blind, in turn crashing their drone — making you “that guy.” You don’t want to be that guy. You can also swamp (cause the video feed to break up) other people’s video by powering up in close proximity to them. Make sure you never power up next to someone else while they’re flying, and if you do, be sure to ask them first. Communication can go a long way to avoid simple mistakes.

Note: A version of this story appears in the January/February 2017 issue of Drone360.
Featured image: Zoe Stumbaugh (5)