It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a drone!

By Matt Crisara/Arizona Sonora News

“It was the first lap, and one of the guys was a hair ahead of me, about 5 or 6 feet, and we made it through the second-to-last gate. I floored it, and cut the right angle and slipped around them on the outside and blasted through the final gate, just a hair ahead of them,” describes Mike Shira, a local Tucson drone racer. 

Shira is drawn to drone racing because of the consistent proximity to other racers. The competition in drone racing is close, and pilot skill is more important than outright drone speed. The rules and regulations for these drone races aim to keep the racing tight and the competition high. 

You might ask what is a racing drone? A lot of people won’t fault you for that. The drones that Shira races are very unique. Unlike large aerial photography drones that you can purchase at Best Buy such as the DJI Phantom, racing drones are much faster and lighter. They also feature an onboard FPV (First Person View) camera that allows the pilot to see where the drone is going. This FPV camera feed is transmitted in real time to a set of goggles that the pilot wears while flying.

When all of the pilots have their goggles down, their heart rate goes up. The FPV experience in the goggles is so immersive that it feels like you are in a different world. After races are finished, it takes a second to re-adjust to real life.

The escapism it affords is one of the reasons why Shira loves the sport of drone racing so much. For the 3 or 4 minutes that pilots are in the air, nothing else matters but flying as fast as they possibly can. Along with being able to tune out the real world, the ability to fly such a tiny drone makes pilots feel like anything is possible, and that no gap is too small to fly through. Pilots often say that it feels like the laws of physics don’t apply to them anymore.

Racing drones are also made of lighter, yet more durable materials. While aerial photography drones are mostly made of plastic components, racing drones are built using carbon fiber. This is a necessity given the higher propensity of crashes in drone racing. Aerial drones are generally flown very carefully, while racing drones are flown fast while going as close as possible to other obstacles and competitors.

While racing, Shira holds his transmitter with his thumbs on the control sticks like a pro. Just to his left, a pro pilot is wearing his team jersey, readying for the off.

Shira races FPV drones through tight indoor tracks with fellow members of a Tucson group of pilots called 520 Whoop Enthusiasts. One of the group’s goals is to try to make drone racing more accessible to the masses. Tracks consist of LED illuminated gates that pilots fly through in a certain order to create a lap. They aim to create an environment for pilots of all abilities to race and compete against one another, with races held every Saturday at indoor venues around town. 

All of the pilots’ video feeds are visible while the race is happening. (Photo by Matt Crisara)
All of the pilots’ video feeds are visible while the race is happening. (Photo by Matt Crisara)

With the indoor nature of their races, the group requires the use of lightweight drones as small as 65 mm wide, known as tiny whoops. They provide much easier entry into the sport for a myriad of reasons: Unlike professional level racing drones which are built from carbon fiber, tiny whoop drones are mostly built from plastic. They are also quite a bit slower, making them harder to crash. Yet in the event of a crash, their components are also much cheaper to repair.

Shira initially got into the sport as a way to escape his daily routine. As all of the races are on the weekends, most people, including Shira, work 9-to-5 jobs during the week.

He loves to tinker with his drones, making them lighter and lighter race by race. According to him, there is an important balance between lightness and strength. A drone could be light as a feather but it will break into a million pieces in the event of a crash.

He’s also designed gates that the racers go through. He is always striving to make them brighter and easier for racers to see. Recently, he came out with a new and improved version of the racing gates. For the latest version he made them brighter, and also improved their battery life.

I myself recently started racing alongside Shira. We’re separated into two categories based on pilot skill. There is an enthusiast group for slower pilots who are starting in the hobby, and an advanced group for faster, more experienced pilots. Shira and I participate in the advanced group.

We go to different venues week after week which favor certain pilots over others. Recently, we raced at the Pete Shepley Archery Center, in one of the facilities’ spare rooms. The room was very big, which means that the course ends up being very fast.

This catered to Shira’s flying style, and unsurprisingly, he ended up doing very well in that race—even though he didn’t win. Shira also flies a drone with brushless motors which provide more power than other more traditional drones with brushed motors.

The group also held a Halloween race inside a very small mirrored room at the Arizona Parrots ranch. In that track, which catered more to my flying style, I won the race overall. While Shira’s drone was very fast, it didn’t have the control necessary to maneuver around the tight, twisty course.

Pilots in the pit area, readying their gear before they race. (Photo by Matt Crisara)
Pilots in the pit area, readying their gear before they race. (Photo by Matt Crisara)

This race was different from the others: We decided to play it in a “chase the ace” format as opposed to following a traditional points-based system. This meant that the first person to win two races in the final set of heats would win the whole race. Our race was really close.

Out of the four racers who were in the final heats, three different people won the first three races while I clinched the overall win in the fourth race. Throughout all of those heats, we were all neck and neck, pushing each other to the limit.

In the end, we congratulated each other on a great race and finished the night with a relaxed outdoor flying session. We flew a couple more times, at our own leisurely pace, orbiting people, flying under chairs, and just having a ton of fun.

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