Build, Crash, Repeat … or how to snare a drone!

“I’m on five, I’m waiting,” said Flying Francis over his controller.

“OK, I’m on eight. Going up,” replied CDrama, engaging the copter’s thrust.

The two copters lifted off with a squeal of mechanical delight.

It was a clear Monday evening. The high white clouds and cobalt sky of early summer contrasted against the expanse of green grass so crisply as to suggest we were standing in a Microsoft Windows desktop, rather than in a field on the UofL ShelbyHurst Campus. But while it might have appeared digitally rendered, this was definitely a real-world environment.

The two copters swooped through a series of gates and then banked to follow the contours of the field. Zipping back along the line of a drainage ditch, they came into the curve that would take them into a second lap. It wasn’t an official race, however. There was no ground station set up with a screen to show the pilot’s-eye view. Fellow flyers Zelkien 69, BigZ, Wangel and Bluegrass Multirotor offered line-of-sight commentary instead.

“Is he getting some sag?”

“Shouldn’t be. I just charged that pack.”

“He’s going up — he’s going for a dive!”

CDrama’s copter rose as it approached a stand of trees next to where we stood in the parking lot. And then just as suddenly, it disappeared. The excited chatter turned into a collective “Oh!” of dismay. CDrama’s copter was hung up — almost out of sight.

Everyone ran toward the tree.

Eye in the sky?

Whether you call them quad-copters, multi-rotors or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), drones are taking off. They may still be a niche hobby for consumers. But they are rapidly going mainstream for business, finding uses in a range of industries, from deliveries and logistics for companies including UPS and Amazon, to the aerial surveys needed by property developers, farmers and oil and gas producers. Then, of course, there is the military’s increasing use of drones in remote-controlled warfare.

All of which raises questions. Drones pose fresh challenges not only for the Federal Aviation Administration, but also for society at large, as we take stock of that brave new world just around the corner, where robots start to take on a larger role in our lives. Whether as coworkers or playmates, guardians or guards, drones are set to become a constant hovering presence, watching over us from above. Some may see that gaze as benevolent, while for others it brings up uncomfortable anxieties around surveillance and worse.

In other words: If you’ve got your own little eye in the sky, wouldn’t you to use it to spy? That was certainly what the guy in Shepherdsville assumed last year, when he saw a drone flying over his yard where his daughters were sunbathing. His response was to get out a gun and shoot down the drone.

A big overreaction, according to the pilots present this evening. Flying Francis shook his head, taking a drag on his vape. “If you could see what we see…” Then he grinned. A thought bubble seemed to form out of the scented smoke wreathing his head: Hey, that’s not a bad idea. He called over his shoulder to Big Z. “You got a pair of goggles for her?”

Here’s what I saw: forms, not even so much features, of landscape. Swathes of grass, blotches of tree. An Impressionist painting cross-hatched by grainy video.

The perspective of speed

For a first-timer, it’s mostly a stomach-churning blur. Pilots, on the other hand, are accustomed to the first-person view that gives drone racing its virusey-sounding acronym. FPV is both virulent to its host and highly contagious to others, thanks to the stimulating clash of fast flying with slow thinking.

“In eight months, I’ve gotten about five other people into it, and they’re just as hungry as I am,” said CDrama, better known as Daniel Nowlin to his friends. Hungry to fly, hungry to learn how to build and tweak their own rigs. Hungry for experiences like this?

At the moment, Daniel’s quad was stuck in a branch a good 100 feet up. From the ground, you could only make out the occasional flash of red plastic when the leaves stirred in the breeze.

Chuck Biddle (Zelkien 69) shouted for a quad-retrieval kit.

“You want me to get my slingshot?” asked Rob Schuhmann (Bluegrass Multirotor), inclining his head toward the parking lot, where all manner of gear lay heaped on, and around, cars with their doors open. Plastic storage bins full of plastic drone pieces, radio transmitters, power cables, a variety of batteries and the gray, fire-retardant Lipo bags to put them in. Metal cases with stickers proclaiming “Build — Crash — Repeat” and “FPV is not a crime.”

“I’ve got a mallet,” volunteered Gary (Wangel) Roberts.

“Try both,” Francis Garthwaite said.

A mallet or hammer, slingshot or any similar tool can be part of a quad-retrieval kit, as long as it’s carrying some heavy-duty fishing line attached to a weight. You throw, or shoot, the weighted end of the fishing line over a tree, then grab the other end and pull. By thus “flossing” the tree’s branches, a trapped drone can be shaken free.

Theoretically.

While the other elements of the kit were being assembled, Daniel started taking free throws with the mallet, hoping to knock his quad loose from the tree’s crown. He sent it high — yet not quite high enough each time.

A short distance away, two of the guys fell into a discussion about the mallets themselves. Not satisfied by speculating about how the mallets’ different weight and weighting might translate into bounce versus striking power, they started an impromptu pound-off on a nearby curb.

Wai Lam turned to me. “Did I mention that we’re nerds? Did I mention we’re all engineers? Did I mention there are no women in this sport?”

Forever a drone?

That doesn’t mean it’s not catching on.

MegaDroneX, the first-ever underground drone race, was held in Louisville’s Mega Cavern on the last weekend in April. “We had 80 of the best pilots in the world, including the top six,” said Wai, one of the main organizers of the event, which he characterized as the second- or third-largest drone race in the U.S. He estimated that about 125 people in all attended (just pilots and event volunteers; there were no spectators as such). Wai owns several businesses geared to drone hobbyists, including the PC Quest & FPV Shop on Westport Road. He described his goal as trying to build drone racing into an organized activity, with regular events and its own community. “As a sport, it’s probably only one-and-a-half-years-old,” he said. But it’s taking shape quickly, in tandem with the evolution of the technology. “At first we were just trying to fly. Now we’re trying to fly fast.”

It’s a development worth watching, because drones represent one prototype of how virtual worlds and the so-called real world may intersect. Call it a layer of added presence. Put on the headset that connects to a GoPro strapped to a drone, and you feel like you’re flying. Not like flying in an airplane, but you yourself soaring, Icarus-like, into the sky, high above roads and buildings and power lines.

Yet if drone racing today offers a preview of our augmented-reality lives in the future, it may turn out to be less about experiencing great adventures than maintaining the avatars that go on them.

Even for frequent drone fliers, the ratio of time in the air versus forum chatting, post-flight debriefing, watching and commenting on other people’s videos, editing and uploading your own videos (not to mention promoting them in social media), building and repairing quads, ordering new parts, charging batteries, planning the next flight, etcetera, would be easily 10:1. For more-recreational fliers, that ratio must be closer to 5:1.

So what’s the draw?

It is a hobby that appeals to problem-solvers, optimizers and tweakers. It is a romance of machines and machine aesthetics. Drones are largely black, bristly and have X-shaped frames; hence, the name “quad-copters.” Drones are the flying beetles of model aircraft. They don’t so much fly as buzz or whine through the air.

And the men who man them?

Picture a husky fellow with a pair of video goggles around his neck, taking a screwdriver to a tiny motor. Now put him under a tent outside, rather than a basement or spare room at home. Drone aviators are techies — often professionally as well as recreationally — but for the most part they’re not gamers.

“You’re either here or in front of the TV,” explained Wai. “There’s too much of a time factor to do both.”

For most drone enthusiasts, it was watching a video on a YouTube channel like Rotor Riot, or Flite Test, that sparked their initial interest. But it’s the actual experience of flight that got them hooked. “This is the first RC hobby I’ve been involved in,” said Rob, who is studying to be a marine biologist. “It’s partly the competition aspect and the thrill. When you get done with a race, your hands are shaking, almost like white-knuckle driving.”

Racers and freestylers are the hackers of the drone world. They don’t mind crashing their vehicles because failing fast makes for an accelerated learning curve — and they’re the kind of people who like to take things apart to begin with. Because it is very much a DIY hobby, the barriers to entry are more about commitment than cost. The initial outlay can fall between a few hundred and $1,000 for the drone itself, as well as such accessories as batteries and chargers. After that, it’s primarily an investment of time.

“It takes about 30 hours to build and tune a quad to where you’re happy with it,” estimated Francis, who is a motorcycle mechanic and bartender in the other part of his life. But the happiness comes just as much from the building and tuning as flying the final product. “It’s like an electronic jigsaw puzzle that requires soldering and lots of testing,” said Chuck, a videographer by trade. Locally, Wai estimated, there are only about 50 to 75 quad racers in Louisville. (The 260 aviators counted by the local Drone User Group on its Meetup page likely include a large number of aerial photographers, also referred to as Phantom fliers.)

Once the members of this tribe find each other, they’re held fast by the camaraderie. “It’s nice to meet the fellow weirdos,” joked Eric Baker, a therapist by day who does not seem like a weirdo at all. (With his button-down shirt and distinct lack of stubble, he may in fact be the most clean-cut member of the group.) “The focus on fellowship is what I like about it. We teach each other a lot.”

And they all pitch in when there’s a problem: like retrieving Daniel’s trapped quad.

“That’s literally $400 sitting up in a tree,” sighed Francis, shading his eyes against the setting sun.

Rob’s slingshot had not worked. Gary had attempted another form of tree-flossing with a PVC pipe. Then it was back to Daniel throwing the mallet.

For the better part of an hour.

“This is our best option. It just sucks,” conceded Francis.

As if to underline his point, both mallets Daniel had been throwing got stuck in the tree too.

A few oak leaves drifted down. But the quad itself stayed put. Reluctantly, the guys called it a night.

The primeval dream of flight

In the early days of the internet, it was hobby programmers and open-source volunteers who pioneered the message boards, peer-to-peer file sharing and wikis that later became the foundation of digital businesses and institutions ranging from Wikipedia to Spotify to Whatsapp. But it wasn’t because they had dreams of IPO billions dancing in their heads, or even because they aimed at doing anything particularly useful. They did it for the sheer pleasure of geeking out with their fellow weirdos, exploring the creative avenues afforded by new technology. So it is today with drones. Right now it’s a fringe activity, the domain of techie types who enjoy all the hands-on fussbudgeting. But, in a few years, there will be cheap, easy-to-use toy drones for the consumer.

The primary constraints at the moment skew towards the low end of the technology spectrum: Battery longevity and quality are the main issues. A fully-charged battery pack can power a drone for only a two-to-three-minute flight, but it takes twice as long to charge again. “It’s a terrible ratio for racing,” Wai admitted. “That’s why some people are attempting to do team racing with pitting and laps. When a race lasts 30 to 40 minutes, it becomes something you can build a story around.”

For pilots, drone racing is a story about speed and skill, and mastering an entirely new set of tools. Then there’s that old human dream of flight: escaping the gravitational hold of everyday life and its obstacles. Both the metaphoric, and the literal.

Caveman, meet drone

It had stormed overnight. The wind and the rain dislodged the mallets from the tree, but not the quad.

Now it was Wai’s turn to try. He was standing under the tree with two new guys, one of whom held a bow and arrow. They shot a rope over the tree and tried the flossing maneuver from a different angle.

Meanwhile, Gary and Daniel drove up in a truck with a very long ladder. It barely reached the lowest branch of the tree, but Daniel thought it might be high enough to get in a better throw with the mallet.

It was not.

Back to the bowman. He took out one of his hunting arrows this time and pulled the bow taut, aiming up at the tree at a nearly 90-degree angle.

He let the arrow fly.

With a crash, the quad tumbled to the ground. It had been impaled right through the center. Was it a goner?

Daniel scooped it up and performed a quick assessment. “The flight controller is undamaged, and the motors will be fine.” He shrugged. “I was going to take it apart anyway.”

Build — crash — repeat.