It’s a strange sight. Four men wearing Virtual Reality (VR) goggles with heads bowed and moving up and down and from side to side. They call it a Stevie Wonder – the humor is a bit rough in this business – but this is the modus operandi of a drone racer.
All four sit in a stand at the rugby field at the Cape Academy for Maths, Science and Technology, in the southern suburbs of Cape Town. The drones buzz like a swarm of bees over the rugby field. With the help of VR, all four have the view from the cockpit of their small drones as they race through hoops, weave through S-bends and barrel roll though low hanging gates at 160 kilometers an hour.
“The first time you fly it’s one of those eye-opening experiences. It’s like you are floating outside your own body, especially if it’s FPV (first-person view)…When you are using goggles, you are fully immersed in virtual reality. It’s as if you are looking at yourself while flying. You still experience all the vertigo of being up in the air and you feel that on the ground. When you get up you feel dizzy after the flight, it blows your mind,” says six-year veteran drone racer Alan Ball.
This experience captured the imagination of Ball. Four years ago, after he got tired of waiting for parts from overseas, he converted his garage into a thriving drone business.
“I said whatever it costs I’m in. That’s how I started… I was working from my garage at night while doing my day job. I would come home from work and work another eight hours until one in the morning, then go to bed, then it was the same thing again the next day.”
Five months later, Ball quit his job as an iOS game developer at Naspers, Africa’s $74.5-billion media group. With R50,000 ($3,900) out of his own pocket he opened the first drone shop in South Africa, Flying Robot.
“Two years later… I am in this massive 200-meter-square warehouse and shipping drones around the country 24/7. We’re now four staff, shipping 15 to 20 drones daily,” he says.
Ball is one of hundreds of Africans waking up to this up-and-coming sport. You can make big money at the top if you are prepared to spend money. A professional will spend as much as R35,000 ($2,700) on one drone.
A pilot’s license can cost up to R30,000 ($2,300). Thereafter you still need to be part of a company that has a Remote Operating Certificate (ROC), of which there are only 11 ROCs in South Africa, says Ball.
Drone prize pools can run into the millions. At the 2016 World Drone Prix, in Dubai, from a $1-million prize pool, 15-year-old Luke Bannister walked away with $250,000 after placing first at its inaugural event.
The sport’s popularity is growing as fast as eSports – professional online gaming –which has taken off in countries like South Korea, the United Kingdom, the United States, as well as South Africa.
A sign of the times in 2016, The Drone Racing League (DRL), which was broadcast live on US sports channel ESPN and Sky. It raised $8 million from Stephen Ross, the owner of the Miami Dolphins who is worth $7.4 billion.
Thirty two competitors face off in heats until they are whittled down to a final four. Obstacles can range anywhere from stadium hallways to two-meter-square gates.
“Your tracks become three dimensional. It’s no longer just an on-the-ground two dimensional track. You can now start exploring verticals and doing maneuvers like a Split-S, to get the quad down and then back again,” says Ball.
In Cape Town, the numbers are growing. Ball says the biggest turnout he’s seen was a crowd of 200 at the South African FPV Racing Club in 2016.
“A lot of guys practice by going through kids’ jungle gyms. The tighter the gap the more the challenge and showing the skill and the precision,” says Ball.
Back at the rugby field in Cape Town, with the four Stevie Wonders, there is a ragtag collection of dads, sons, hobbyists and professionals. Each pilot brings a bag of wires, batteries and spare parts. If a drone smashes into a flag, they can repair it on the spot. In this sport, a handyman is as good as a dashing racer.
“The pioneers in the scene seven years ago were taking components they could find that were everyday – CCTV cameras or everyday transmission video systems. They would then figure out how to put that on a plane or a quad and start flying it,” says Ball.
“It was a cool time to do it. I was building my own flight controllers from old gyros from helicopters, and assembling that. Some racers would use Sony cinematography goggles, what you would sit on the couch and watch TV with. They put those into snowboard goggles and hacked them together themselves.”
Ball’s first drone was a hack job – a three bladed Tricopter. With soldering iron and an open mind, he built it using a plan he downloaded from the internet, a cut out mainframe from copper PC board and 10mmx10mm meranti wood for arms.
“It’s a great platform to learn about technology and electronics. We are using it today at the Cape Academy for Maths, Science and Technology’s workshops, teaching [students] about remote control and how things work in flight,” says Ball.
Ball’s hack jobs are a far cry from what he builds now. In May, he launched his own drone, called the EchoQuad-X. Ball says in the racing scene everyone is now building their own.
“The X-range is almost like Meccano. [Drone racing] is a very DIY hobby; you build your own drone, you fix your own drone when you are sitting at your work bench at night. We thought let’s give people options to build it their way and inspire creativity to come up with their own configuration that suits them and how they want to be,” says Ball.
Clearly drones are how Ball wants to be as an entrepreneur. His other ventures didn’t work out. The first shot at entrepreneurism was importing cement, which didn’t kick off. He then tried selling video jukeboxes to music stores. He also took a shot at developing app games, which brought in some cash when he started working with Naspers. It was the business of his heart that proved a winner.
“I was always taking things apart and putting them back together again. Maybe they didn’t work when I put them back together again. When I was a kid I was building my own computer. I built model airplanes and full-sized gliders. I was drawn to the thrill of flight.”
Drones are also tearing through social media faster than they rip through the skies. Drone racers share their movies and experiences online. YouTube is often the glue that binds the small band of racers in Africa.
“People are coming up with new tricks all the time. The only way to see it is on YouTube. Every time there is a new model that comes into the community it’s all shared and distributed through YouTube.”
“It’s accelerated everything that’s related to the hobby. Initially it was online forums for online pilots. I think things have moved out of the forums and into the technical celeb space where you have your YouTube channels. We learn from them.”
There is no denying that drones and their ability to fly cheaply have made themselves indispensable to entrepreneurs looking for an innovative edge. Drones have been used to map mines, deliver pizza and photograph weddings. Once, a bunch of drones flew together to make a hovercraft.
But, Ball warns, there are pitfalls.
“You are not allowed to fly a drone higher than 50 meters. You are not allowed fly 50 meters near roads or buildings, which means you are not necessarily allowed to fly in your backyard. Privacy is obviously a big thing.”
“Now with the drones being so easy to fly, it makes it easier to take a photo of their house, but what they don’t realize is there is someone else in their back garden that could lead to other things happening.”
In Australia, in 2014, a property company used a drone photograph to advertise a house on sale on a large billboard. The company didn’t realize that, at the time, the neighbor, Mandy Lingard, was tanning topless next door.
“It went through all these checks and only when it was on the billboard did the lady who owned the house notice that she was tanning in her back garden. It led to a large lawsuit,” says Ball.
There is also the rising fear of drone hacking.
“Yes, it’s true. A hacker that is a Remote Control [RC] enthusiast hacked a known protocol that drives the drone, the radio control, and took over the drone. He proved it was very easy to take over control of any RC plane or drone.”
Fear or not, the buzz of the drone is likely to get louder over the skies of Africa in the next decade.
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