Drone racing captivates fans at Harvard’s ‘Making Robotics Fly’ event

The MIT Cheetah is a robot that runs up to 13 miles per hour.
The MIT Cheetah is a robot that runs up to 13 miles per hour.

As two men raced drones around Harvard Stadium with remote controls, kids were mesmerized by the aerial tricks and speed at which the football-sized technology flew through the air.

“There’s something about flying drones and racing that people just are drawn to,” said Tony Budding, media director for the Drone Racing League. “We are looking to create the top-level professional drone racing experience for fans and media.”

The Drone Racing League, started by Harvard alumnus Nick Horbaczewski in March, is based on first-person view racing, which was developed about one year ago. Cameras on the drones allow the operator to see exactly what the drone is doing, and control its flight. The drones hit speeds of 60 to 70 miles per hour and are built to withstand impact.

Drone racing was one of six demonstrations at the Making Robotics Fly event, hosted by the Harvard Business School, Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and the Xfund. More than 400 kids, college students, parents, and professionals witnessed the first-ever drone delivery and drone race at Harvard Stadium on Saturday. For safety precautions, fans sat in chairs on the turf, inside of a netting.

“The racing league is pretty impressive,” said Gabriel Woolf, 13, who reads many science magazines and is interested in how drones will impact the economy. “This technology had existed for so many years prior with toy helicopters with cameras. Then, we invented the GPS-locking technology and the super high-speed motors, and the idea of the drone just Kaboomed.”

One of the biggest problems surrounding drone racing, Budding said, is the technological interference that drones have with each other. If too many drones are in the same airspace, the cameras do not work and the drones can’t be operated.

The Drone Racing League is creating the sport’s rules, determining how cameras will film the high-speed action, and how to develop the technology to allow for multiple drones in the air simultaneously, Horbaczewski said. RSE Ventures invested $1 million in August in the New York-based startup’s first round of funding, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Paola Santana is the co-founder of Matternet, Inc. in Palo Alto, Calif. She demonstrated how the Matternet One drone, which launched in March, can deliver a package by placing an item and battery inside the drone, and then pressing a button on an app. Matternet One can transport up to 2.2 pounds over 12 miles, autonomously, and is being tested in Switzerland.

Matternet has also tested drones in Bhutan, a developing country with poor infrastructure, to connect information collected at rural clinics with hospitals, or bring medicine from a hospital to the patient, drastically reducing the travel time, Santana said.

Xu Chen, a visiting sociology scholar at Harvard from Wuhan, China, especially enjoyed the drone racing, but foresees a widespread practical application of drones in delivering medicine.

“I think the drone technology can be integrated with daily needs, especially for the elderly or disabled,” Chen said.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Cheetah, the brainchild of mechanical engineering professor Sangbae Kim and the MIT Biomimetic Robotics Lab, was the only robot that did not move. The Cheetah robot can run up to 13 miles per hour and jump up to two feet high, but its capabilities were only witnessed in a video.

The event ended with an aerial selfie, shot by DigiNovations, which makes aerial videography drones. Michael Kolowich, founder and chief executive of DigiNovations, said the biggest challenge in the drone ecosystem is getting permission by petitioning for exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Section 333 regulation, which requires a licensed pilot to operate a registered aircraft. Gaining an exemption allows for unmanned aircrafts to perform commercial operations.

John Aleman, an aerospace engineer at CyPhy Works, said CyPhy is mitigating the safety concerns by connecting the robots to Ground Control Station, where humans can control the flight pattern without relying on radio frequency communications.

Making Robotics Fly was part of HUBweek, which is co-sponsored by The Boston Globe. Paul Karoff, the assistant dean for communications at SEAS, hoped the event not only provided an entertainment value but also revealed why drones matter to society.

“We want to use this as an opportunity for the general public to see and watch some examples of this technology with an aim towards demystifying what drones are and what they can do,” Karoff said in a phone conversation.