Drone Racing is both fun and competitive
By Carole Townsend
Peachtree Corners – Todd Wahl is passionate about a few things. First of course, is his young family. Todd and his wife have four children, and family activities from dinner to neighborhood walks, are a priority.
He is also CEO of Atlanta Technology Force in Norcross, a business information technology company. But get Todd talking about drones – FPV (First Person View) Drone Racing, to be exact – and his excitement escalates.
A drone is, technically, any unmanned aerial vehicle that is computer operated, remotely operated or a combination of both. A drone can be an airplane or a multi-rotor helicopter.
Right: Todd’s son Tristan Wahl getting ready to fly
“I built my first multirotor drone in 2005, before anybody even knew what they were,” Todd said. “It cost about three thousand dollars.” More than 10 years later, much of the drone technology looks the same, but there have been a few key advancements. Battery life, flight time and payload capacity have been extended. In addition, autonomous flight via computers has been developed. Around 2008, the FAA ruled against commercial use of drone technology (pending the formation of rules), because of safety concerns integrating drones into the National Air Space (NAS). “I think that made a lot of sense….I just wish the FAA had made their original deadline of 2015,” said Todd, who is all for establishing rules and regulations for this powerful technology.
For example, the racing club’s website offers these tips to drone flyers: Never fly over people or property. Never fly within 5 miles of an airport. Never fly higher than 400 feet. Those may sound like common sense rules, courtesies really, but flying a drone is more than a hobby. It is a serious, powerful capability that should not be taken lightly.
As happens with so many hobbies, sports and passions, Todd put his hobby on a back burner when his children began coming along (after 2005). The time and cost considerations were pretty high back then. “When you crash a three thousand dollar drone, that gets expensive,” he laughed. “Too expensive for a guy with four kids.”
But in 2013, Todd got back into flying his drone, with a couple of goals in mind. First, he wanted to organize a racing club with rules and regulations governing close-proximity flyers. Second, Todd is passionate about getting kids and adults alike off the couch, and out into the real world, socializing, sharing ideas and honing the skills required to be a top-notch drone pilot.
After doing a lot of travel and research toward that end, he met Doug Andriuk (founder of one of the largest Drone Users Group in the USA). “Doug told me that, as early as a couple of years ago, people were holding impromptu FPV drone races in California & Arizona. Those were park races, mostly for fun, not so much for competition,” Todd said. Still, the seed of excitement about racing drones – not just flying them for a hobby - had been planted and eventually, Todd founded Drone Racing Club, which promotes safe, responsible competition in the sport of FPV drone racing. The club has grown from about 30 members initially to hundreds in just the metro Atlanta area in about a years’ time, a testament to the attraction of this fascinating new sport.
“For years, the problem was that people were flying their drones in neighborhoods and around people, which is neither safe nor responsible. Now, we set up courses in abandoned buildings, in open fields and on sports fields. The world’s first drone relay races, complete with pit crews and pilots, were held right here in Georgia, in the Georgia Dome and the World Congress Center,” Todd said. Drones can fly 80 mph, and today most are a little larger than a man’s hand. The cost of a drone has gotten smaller, too, at $500 - $600 per aircraft. And yes, make no mistake, drone racing is a sport. Even better, it’s an inclusive sport that has broken barriers that no other sport has been able to break.
“Think about it. Traditional sports, like football, baseball or wrestling, leave athletes with bad backs and knees, and with comparatively limited earning potential as a coach later on in life. But drone racing is different. Every kid or adult who’s spent years playing video games has been training for this sport,” said Todd. In the Drone Racing Club, competitors range in age from 8 years old to age 70. Boys and girls, men and women, compete. Retired athletes who still love the adrenaline rush compete. “Geeks” compete. “It used to be that the geeks and nerds were considered rejects, not belonging anywhere. Now, they fly drones alongside jocks and fitness junkies. It’s an amazing thing to see.” In Florida, a paraplegic man competes, and he’s pretty good. “He said it’s like being outside his body; it is his Avatar effect” said Todd. “All a person needs to compete are eyes and fingers.”
Incidentally, Todd said that one of the most skilled drone pilots he’s seen recently happens to be a young woman who has only been flying for a few months. Maybe that can be chalked up to the assertion that scientists have made for years, that women have superior eye/hand coordination and dexterity. Whatever the reason, Todd is a believer, and he wants to see more women start racing drones competitively.
Colleges are getting in on the action, too. Not surprisingly, on April 23 Georgia Tech got on board, with the first sanctioned and funded college drone racing club in Georgia’s university system. Colleges all over the world are doing the same, and still more are sitting up and taking notice of this adrenaline-infused sport that requires training and skill. It’s an added bonus that almost anyone can participate in this inclusive, highly competitive sport.
“The beauty is that yes, this is an exciting, fast-paced sport, but the implications reach so much farther. Aviation up until now has been about proximity avoidance, above the roofline and tree line. Now, we race close proximity below the tree line. Think about how that can change military operations, search-and-rescue operations, even business,” Todd said with excitement.
Oil, civil engineering, construction, farmers and power company executives are looking at how inspections and other tasks can be performed by drones rather than by manned aircraft. Those tasks, as well as search-and-rescue missions, can be done at perhaps a thousandth of the cost of piloted operations. And drones can often be mobilized in a matter of minutes, not hours or days. That could make all the difference in the success of an operation in which people are searching for a small child or elderly person with Alzheimer’s disease.
It’s easy to see why Todd Wahl is one of FPV Drone Racing’s most enthusiastic spokespeople out there. To learn more about Drone Racing Club, to read Todd’s blog, to become a member, or to check out exciting racing videos, visit www.1drc.com.