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Look out, NASCAR: Drone racing is taking off at Spire Institute in Ohio

Spire Institute's drone-racing program is growing in popularity. It offers more than just an opportunity to compete. It's a chance for competitors to learn practical applications and scientific skills. Here, Angela Jacques and Andy Stankiewicz guide the program.

MARC BONA/CLEVELAND.COM

By MARC BONA | cleveland.com | Published: March 8, 2021

GENEVA, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — Take the speed of an auto racer, the control of a fighter pilot, the dexterity of a gamer and the desire of a competitive athlete and you have the making of a drone racer.

That spirit is being cultivated at Spire Institute in Geneva. Over the last year, the sports institute and academy has been expanding its athletics and academic curriculum, and now includes drone racing in its programming. Under the guidance of Angela Jacques and Andy Stankiewicz, a generation of drone racers is being prepared for more than competition.

“The competition might be the spark that got them into it,” Stankiewicz said, “but then they realize ‘Oh wow, I could get a career for developing software, you don’t even have to be a pilot.’ There’s so many different aspects they can purse.”

Jacques is a testament to the multitude of applications for drones. Born in Cincinnati, she lived mostly in Mexico and recently moved back. Her college degree is in geography.

“I started used drones for aerial mapping and environmental studies,” said Jacques, who has been flying drones for seven years and racing for five. She had a company in Mexico that recognized the dual sides of drones: A fun, recreational hobby that has serious applications.

“That’s one of the things that makes Spire so unique,” she said about the institute recognizing the two-pronged approach that allows enthusiasts to acquire knowledge and compete, something she finds “fascinating and entertaining.”

Applications outside of racing

Drone applications cover an array of uses, including agriculture-inspection mapping and surveying. Compared to satellite imagery, drones are “easy, quick and cheap” to yield clear photographs, Jacques said.

“It’s a great little tool,” she said. “For mapping it’s one of the best things that has ever happened.”

Drones allow for architects to create 3D mapping. They aid in disaster response; non-profits and volunteers can get together for search-and-rescue missions, to fight forest fires, to reach victims in natural disasters. They can determine if it’s safe to enter a building or bring medicine despite challenging terrain.

“They can go where people can’t,” Jacques said. “You’re not risking more people.”

She would know. She assisted in the 2017 Mexico City earthquake that claimed more than 300 lives.

The oil industry uses drones extensively. Aerial photography and videography gives farmers a bird’s-eye view to see their acreage in what is known as “precision agriculture” to save time. Radio and bridge tower inspection allows for a vantage of places “where the human eye can’t even see,” Stankiewicz said.

In addition, drone technology has benefited the film industry, Jacques said. “Every single movie, every single TV show, now has drone shots. Every single commercial has drone shots.”

“Drones have been something that has just blown everyone out of the water,” she added. “We were not expecting them to evolve so fast. They can carry all sorts of equipment.”

But it’s not the drone doing everything. It’s the pilot at the controls. And that’s where the training at Spire comes in.

How racing works

Pilots maneuver drones through a pre-determined obstacle course with a series of 5-foot by 5-foot gates. Flags are posted as obstacles. Pilots must dart their drones quickly on timed circuits, trying to collect as many laps in two minutes. Times are important; they form a qualifying order that leads to seeded brackets. Competition of laps then becomes a priority.

Racing drones can exceed more than 100 mph in less than a second and turn on a dime.

“The agility that they have nowadays on a smaller scale is obvious, but they really are little fighter jets,” Stankiewicz said. “They (pilots) fly all by muscle memory. They don’t even need to see where the obstacle is; they remember where that is in their head, and their finger movements just go to where the gate was before.

“The fastest guys — half the time, these guys could have their eyes closed.”

Pilots use a remote controller with two gimbal sticks. The left one will control throttle, up, down and yaw; the right can tilt forward, backward, left and right.

“You’re constantly controlling your altitude and attitude (direction),” he said.

How high a drone goes depends on the particular competition — as well as FAA rules. Treetops is the general rule of thumb for maximum height, Stankiewicz said. Or pilots will go only as high as the highest positioned flag. The goal, he said, is “fast and low.”

Drones are incredibly light; with battery, they weigh less than 400 grams. A pint of beer weighs more. Tiny indoor drones can be less than 50 grams. (One ounce is just more than 28 grams.)

It costs about $1,000 for a racing-drone setup. A quad – named because of its four propellers — could cost about $300, plus maybe $200 for the controller with a decent set of goggles going around $500.

Those goggles are intrinsic to the sport. Technology allows for video to be sent from drone to goggles in real time with “barely any lag,” Stankiewicz said.

“Whatever the drone is seeing, you’re seeing,” he said, adding, “It gives you the sensation you are the pilot.”

FPV – first-person view technology — has been around for years, they said, but components are becoming smaller, lighter, faster and cheaper.

“It’s crazy,” Jacques said. “It’s a real out-of-body experience.”

Stankiewicz said another competition behind the scenes is going on, a technological one to speed up drone-to-goggles data.

“There’s a race to see who can get the lowest latency,” he said. “There’s some delay in electronics. … But they’re down to milliseconds, 20 to 40 milliseconds.”

At those increments, it doesn’t sound like it would mean much. But if you’re going 100 mph, losing a fifth of a second means the difference of staying on course or smashing into a tree.

Range depends on transmitter, camera transmission and battery. Racing drones are more limited, extending 1,000 to 1,500 feet, reliably – a bit more than a football field. A commercial drone you can buy at Best Buy can go about 18 miles, they said. Indoor areas, like one at Spire, are netted in to avoid a wayward drone from heading off into spectators.

Another limit: Drone racing is lagging in battery power.

“If we had better battery technology, we could go faster and fly longer and further,” Stankiewicz said.

“We get the bottom of the barrel,” he added. “The very best go to the government and military.”

Races are sprints. They last two and a half to three minutes. Batteries die after 3 minutes, so racers keep a constant rotation of fresh batteries, which can take 20 or so minutes to re-charge. A typical day of competition means each pilot races 12 to 14 times. And yes, crashes happen. Exposed components is great for speed, not so much for crash protection.

“They’re pretty durable,” Stankiewicz said. “Most of the time it’s just a busted propeller.”

Racers become their own mechanics.

“We always say drone racing is just the gateway drug for the young people; it’s just what gets them hooked,” Jacques said. “The reality is if you get into drone racing, no matter what, you have to learn how to build your quads. That gives you a way better perspective of what you can do. But also it gives you so many more skills than just buying a drone at Target or Best Buy.”

She added: “You’re not going to send it to the manufacturer. You’re going to fix it on the spot so you bring your own soldering and you bring your own equipment.”

The sport brings a communal nature between competitors who, while wanting to win, also want to help each other. They carry spare parts, motors, goggles.

“That’s something that makes drone racing so beautiful. Since we’re all struggling, the community is very helpful. Even though you are competing it takes so much to learn how to fix, to learn how to build, to learn how to fly,” Jacques said.

“Everyone just wants to share the passion that they have,” Stankiewicz said.

People come from all over for Spire’s meetups and camps. Jacques said the skills learned supersede racing itself. “I always tell kids when we’re teaching them, ‘You are learning to troubleshoot, you are learning skills that are going to last a lifetime, but also you are learning to be patient.’ "

Drone racing’s future

“Nobody ever thought they would be playing video games for a multi-million-dollar sport,” said Stankiewicz, who discovered FPV and drone racing six years ago. “It is growing slowly, and I think it will keep growing as technology and more people realize it. The biggest thing we’re trying to get is more spectator-friendly.”

To that end, racing quads can be brightly colored, he said, “Otherwise they just look like angry bees flying around.”

“One of the things that back-fired with drone racing, it grew way faster than esports,” Jacques said. “Esports has been around for more than two decades. … When it (drone racing) started and it was ready to be so big, too much money was dumped into it without it being ready.”

Drone racing did gain some national exposure when NBCSN ran an eight-weekend series also broadcast via Twitter. DHL and Mountain Dew have sponsored races. One sci-fi, video-game-like option being explored is the possibility of using various colors for gates. So “the whole track could change colors” based on the color of the quad in the lead.

“That stuff will come eventually,” said Stankiewicz, who is from Cleveland and got into radio-controlled cars when he was 8. He evolved to shifter-kart racing.

“I got too old for that and couldn’t afford broken bones anymore,” he said. “The RC and the racing are two of my biggest passions in life and really combined well where you can still get the adrenaline rush in competing and racing against other people without worrying about broken bones or crashing or hurting yourself.”

From the waiting lists Spire draws, drone racing’s popularity is clear to see. But as for practical uses like delivering pizzas, more research and development is needed. And what racing drones have in agility is offset by payload limitations.

“Drones are super vulnerable machines,” Jacques said. “It’s not just ‘click here and they go here.’ " And if they sense heat, like a person, they won’t land.

Some sort of merger with esports expanding simulation technology could be a possibility in the future, they said, and the sport could garner more sponsors.

“I think it will eventually be on a much bigger stage,” Stankiewicz said.

Spire is at 5201 Spire Circle, Geneva, Ohio. Last year Spire held a five-day camp, which crammed in a few months’ worth of instruction. Prices ranges from $775 (day camp without board) to $995 (with boarding). Four meetups have been held. They are scheduled monthly and fill up fast. A camp is slated for this summer.

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