Drone racing takes off

Chris Fields, 29, of Carlisle, piloted his drone during the US Drone Racing Association competition in Berlin on Sunday.
Chris Fields, 29, of Carlisle, piloted his drone during the US Drone Racing Association competition in Berlin on Sunday.

You hear it before you see it: a high-pitched whirring that sounds like a dive bomber crossed with the world’s largest bumblebee. This past Saturday, the buzz came from the edge of a large field in Berlin, just miles from where Interstate 495 meets Interstate 290 outside of Worcester. Moments­ later, there was a loud thwack, followed a sympathetic “ooh!” from a dozen spectators.

Dave Shevett pulled off his headset, chuckling: “Well, there’s one more for the goblet of shame!”

It’s all part of the drill when you’re running a drone race.

Shevett is chairman of the US Drone Racing Association, a new group formed to connect aspiring and current racers for the latest of tech sports. When they’re not flying or rebuilding drones, the group works with clubs across the Northeast to standardize racing regulations. While other, heavily sponsored racing organizations are cropping up across the nation, Shevett says the USDRA’s focus is on the logistics. They want “to codify drone racing in a way that makes it a fair and enjoyable sport,” he said.

And while the USDRA is clearly about having fun, it doesn’t take much imagination to see where the sport is headed. Formula 1 racing already broadcasts live HD video at 200 miles per hour from tiny cameras mounted on cars. Internet broadcasting of video games and other niche competitions is a billion-dollar industry. Some drone racers expect to soon see big money flowing their way in the form of sponsorships and competition prizes, just as in many other sports.

But today’s race isn’t particularly cutthroat. When the other racers’ drones — quadcopters, technically — landed, Shevett walked out onto the figure-eight course. His airborne collision with the double-gate ­obstacle, made of pool noodles, caused him to lose communication with the drone during his test run.

“Like any racing, you spend most of your time in the pits,” he said.

Despite ejecting its battery, breaking two of its four rotors, and cartwheeling for 20 feet, the drone was in surprisingly good shape. Shevett tossed the broken rotors into a glass goblet, full of other broken drone parts.

“You learn best from the wipeouts,” said Chris Fields, one of the group’s more experienced pilots. Fields has been flying for more than a year and runs a startup that designs and builds carbon-fiber frames for drones.

During his practice run, Fields donned a first-person-view headset that blocked out his vision. Fields ­piloted from a grainy live camera mounted to the front of his craft. There was a loud whirring, and several seconds later the drone was almost out of sight, traveling close to 30 miles per hour.

The course went out over a rolling field and banked sharply to follow the tree line before it ran a slalom between two small trees and a bushy willow. A gust of wind pushed Fields off course, and spectators cheered as he barrel-rolled the drone.

“I think people get into the sport because of the visceral feeling,” he said. Watching from a second headset is the closest you can get to flying without leaving the ground.

At last the official race began, and almost immediately a racer was knocked out as he clipped a racing pylon­ — another foam noodle ­— and lost control. At the end of the first lap, Fields was ahead by a third of the course, but a power failure knocked him out on the second lap. A third racer was also out after missing a turn.

Shevett crossed the finish line with a smile on his face.

“We say three laps,” he said. “But at this point it’s often a race of endurance.”